Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, as is his usual practice, greeted students from mainland China in Rome on Chinese Lunar New Year in early February. But this time he was accompanied by Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai, the new secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
About 120 priests, seminarians and nuns gathering at the Pontifical Urban College received red envelopes, a monetary gift symbolising good luck, from the 79-year-old cardinal.
They in return presented gifts to the cardinal – to mark the 50th anniversary of his priesthood in February 2011 – and the archbishop who was newly-ordained the day before.
Some of those present voiced their expectations of the new archbishop's role and looked forward to developments in the China Church through this year and beyond.
Father Joseph, who works in Italy, said he was “a bit worried” that Archbishop Hon may not get used to the complex situation in the Roman Curia. “He seems not a man of politics. Now is a critical moment. After the illicit Chengde ordination
and Catholic congress
in China last year, the missionary congregation has to handle well relations with many parties,” he said.
A bishop who does not have papal approval was elected president of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China during the December congress while a Vatican-approved bishop became head of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
If Rome really wants to do something good for the China Church, it’s time to stand on Church principle, said Father Joseph. Archbishop Hon would hopefully have seen the past failures and this could help him to consider how to face the challenges ahead.
Another priest, Father Peter, said he hoped there would be no more inconsistency in instructions from the Vatican, which he thought was caused by the eagerness of some Vatican officials to build diplomatic ties.
The Chinese government manipulated such a mentality “like giving bait for fish to chase after but the splashes and whirls have caused great harm to the China Church.”
Some missionary societies also support the Holy See to make certain concessions on Church principles for the sake of evangelization, he observed.
Father Peter anticipated that whoever the Pope appoints to succeed Cardinal Ivan Dias, the congregation prefect who will reach 75 in April, would definitely consult Archbishop Hon, as a Chinese, on China affairs.
Sister Zhang, a student in Rome, thinks the China-Vatican relations have entered into a transitional stage as the open Church authorities have also elected new personnel.
Father Matthew Gu Guangzhong, a Shanghai native residing in the US, believes the archbishop is in a difficult situation to begin with. “Neither can the orthodox of the Catholic Church work in the mainland, nor can the Holy See accept China’s independent Church principle.”
However, the 79-year-old priest, who came for the archbishop’s ordination, said he was optimistic that the situation would change as China needs a dialogue with the Vatican to maintain its vested interests in the international arena.
A few other seminarians also see “hope despite great difficulties”, referring to government control of the Church and probably more illicit ordinations in 2011.
“The problems of the China Church also depend on the overall situation of China. So it will not be solved in the short run,” one of them said.
However, given the fact that “the Catholic Church has existed for thousands of years and the China Church has also sustained despite persecution over the past few decades, we should have faith in God’s plan,” another one said, adding that it is also important to give encouragement to mainland bishops.
Pope ordains Hong Kong Salesian as archbishop
Cardinal welcomes Vatican appointment
Archbishop-elect Hon to be ordained by pope
Pope appoints Chinese to senior Vatican role