Updated: May 16, 2022 05:40 PM GMT
My Catholic faith has been shaped by a wide range of spiritual traditions from within the Church.
Before I was received into the Church in St Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, Myanmar on Palm Sunday nine years ago, I undertook an Ignatian retreat at Campion Hall in Oxford.
I have a Jesuit spiritual director, have made several retreats at Jesuit centers over the past decade, and was baptized just 11 days after our first-ever Jesuit pontiff, Pope Francis was elected.
I read the works of Henri de Lubac, Jean-Pierre de Caussade and the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ignatian spirituality has been a core influence on me.
But with my name and my love of the previous pope’s writings, I could hardly ignore Benedictine spirituality, particularly having been blessed by the hospitality of several of the Order’s monasteries over the years. Thomas Merton, the great Cistercian Trappist monk, spoke to me through his writings.
Dominican teachers such as Austria’s great Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and the Order’s former master Father Timothy Radcliffe, both of whom I have the privilege of knowing, have inspired me.
I have been encouraged by Carmelites, whom I came across both in Timor-Leste and through a Burmese Carmelite sister in Scotland.
And one of my earliest key influences was Sister Lourdes (or ‘Mana Lou’), a religious sister in Timor-Leste who rejected the established congregations and founded her own – the Secular Institute of Brothers and Sisters in Christ.
Authors outside religious orders — such as G.K. Chesterton, Malcolm Muggeridge, Dorothy Day, Scott Hahn, and George Weigel — as well as the great Englishman who made the same journey I made, from Anglicanism to Catholicism, St. John Henry Newman have played a key part in my journey. And there are many others I could also mention.
But there are two men who have probably had the most influence on me, both in my faith journey and my human rights advocacy work, and they both happen to be Salesians and Cardinals in Asia: Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo and Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen.
I first met Cardinal Zen when he was Hong Kong’s co-adjutor bishop, some years before he received the red biretta, when I lived in the city during the first five years after the handover, from 1997 to 2002.
He has always inspired me by his humble, gentle but steadfast courage, his commitment to truth and justice, his tireless advocacy of democracy, human rights and religious freedom and his unwavering refusal to bend to the wishes of the Chinese Communist Party regime.
In recent years he has visited Hong Kong’s prisons almost every day, to say Mass and pray with and for the growing number of political prisoners in the city.
His arrest on May 11 — and the possibility that he may actually be put in prison alongside those he has been visiting — is outrageous and heartbreaking.
His fellow Salesian, Cardinal Charles Bo, is the man who inspired and then received me into the Church. Equally tireless and courageous in his defense of human rights, he has been a mentor and friend to me for 15 years.
So it was no surprise to me when, a two days ago, in his capacity as president of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, Cardinal Bo issued a beautiful statement of solidarity with 90-year-old Cardinal Zen, calling for prayer for Hong Kong.
“My brother Cardinal, His Eminence Joseph Zen, was arrested and faces charges simply because he served as a trustee of a fund which provided legal aid to activists facing court cases,” said Cardinal Bo. “In any system where the rule of law exists, providing assistance to help people facing prosecution meet their legal fees is a proper and accepted right. How can it be a crime to help accused persons have legal defense and representation?”
He went on to reflect on the dramatic changes in the city. “Hong Kong used to be one of Asia’s freest and most open cities. Today, it has been transformed into a police state. Freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and association, and academic freedom have all been dismantled,” he said, noting that religious freedom is now threatened too.
Cardinal Zen, who was released on bail within a few hours of his arrest, is expected to face trial on May 24. It cannot be any coincidence that that is the day when the Church celebrates the World Day of Prayer for the Church in China, first established by Pope Benedict XVI, and the Feast of Mary Help of Christians and, for China, Our Mother of Sheshan.
Last year Cardinal Bo called for this to be expanded into a Week of Prayer each year, and a group of lay Catholics around the world took up the idea. Beginning next Sunday May 22, the second Global Week of Prayer for China will begin, with the endorsement of Pope Francis.
Cardinal Bo has urged Christians of all traditions, next week, “to pray for Hong Kong especially, and the Church in China, as well as the Uyghurs, Tibetans and others facing persecution in China.” And he has called for special prayers for his Salesian brother Cardinal, Joseph Zen, on May 24 itself “as we seek the prayers of Mary Help of Christians.” Where possible, he adds, “churches might consider a votive Mass on this day.”
Cardinal Bo was right to conclude that “for the people of Hong Kong it is now increasingly difficult to speak out freely, so those of us outside Hong Kong who have a voice must use it on their behalf, and devote our prayers and efforts to showing solidarity with and support for them, in the hope that one day their freedoms will be restored.”
The last Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Chris Patten, a Catholic, supported calls for prayer. “I hope that the Vatican and Catholics everywhere will protest about the arrest of a great Catholic pastor and advocate, and pray for his safety and well-being and that of the whole of Hong Kong,” he said last week.
I will certainly be praying throughout next week, and especially on May 24, inspired by these two Asian Cardinals who are such courageous prophetic voices. Their episcopal mottos say it all, and complement each other's.
Cardinal Zen’s is “Ipsacuraest” meaning “He cares about you,” which comes from the words of 1 Peter 5: 7 – “Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares about you.”
Cardinal Bo’s is “Omna possum in Eo” or “I can do all things through Him,” from Philippians 4: 13 – “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Next week, let us join with these two heroes of the faith, inspired by their episcopal mottos, to pray for the people and the Church throughout China and especially, at this time, Hong Kong.
* Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign. He is the author of six books, including three books about Myanmar, especially his latest, “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”. His faith journey is told in his book “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church” (Gracewing, 2015). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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