Updated: February 14, 2022 02:45 AM GMT
This photo taken on April 3, 2021 shows Catholic worshippers attending a mass on "Holy Saturday", part of Easter celebrations at a Catholic church in a village near Beijing. (Photo: Jade Gao/AFP)
When I was received into the Catholic Church on Palm Sunday of 2013 in St Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon, by my friend who went on to become Myanmar’s first-ever Cardinal and subsequently President of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, Cardinal Charles Bo, literally 11 days after the election of Pope Francis, I did not come into the Church in order to pick a fight with the Vatican.
On the contrary, although my attraction to the Church pre-dated Pope Francis, my reception into it is so intertwined with his papacy that I feel a deep bond with the Holy Father. I welcome his emphasis on grace, forgiveness, compassion and healing, I applaud his focus on justice and peace and I love his message of mercy.
In preparation for my reception, I had been inspired and shaped by Jesuit spirituality, undertaking an Ignatian retreat a few months before my reception. A Jesuit in Myanmar joked that even though I was inspired and received by a Salesian, Cardinal Bo, and I love the spirituality of my namesake, Benedict, and have been inspired by both Benedictine hospitality and Dominican thought, I had waited until the conclave chose a Jesuit Pope before crossing the Tiber. That’s not totally true, as I am shaped by and respond to the Church’s diverse spiritual and religious traditions, but within Catholic humor, there’s always a nugget of truth.
And yet three Salesians – Myanmar’s Cardinal Bo, Hong Kong’s Cardinal Zen and some years back East Timor’s Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo – have proved pivotal in inspiring me in my fight for justice. My human rights work began in earnest in Timor-Leste, inspired at least in part by Bishop Belo, it grew when I lived in Hong Kong and met regularly with Cardinal Zen, who at the time was coadjutor bishop, and it blossomed with my friendship with Cardinal Bo.
Over recent years, the spirits of Don Bosco, St Ignatius of Loyola, St Dominic and St Benedict have kept nudging me: speak out, do so boldly, do so with charity, do so hospitably, do so with wisdom, justice and truth. And so, in my various writings, and with my very real human fallibility, I have sought to do so.
That’s why in the past week I have written to sound the alarm of the threat to religious freedom in Hong Kong. Having worked on human rights and religious freedom for all my adult life, I have learned that it is better to offer an early warning sign, rather than call for the fire engines when the fire is raging, and it is too late. Some close friends have nicknamed me “Trumpet” because they say my duty is to stand on the city wall and sound the alarm. As the brother of a professional violinist, I’d rather blow the trumpet than play, very falteringly, the requiem. Another close friend and mentor calls me “Shaker”, for the same reason. I’d rather shake people up so people prepare for the earthquake.
That’s why I wrote articles and gave interviews last week warning of shifting sands in the Vatican-China relationship and challenges to religious freedoms in Hong Kong.
Yesterday, the Holy See’s representative in Hong Kong, Monsignor Javier Herrera Corona – a slightly unfortunate name, given the pandemic, but never mind – dismissed the fears about possible plans by the Vatican to establish diplomatic ties as mere speculation. Despite the fact that the Holy See’s representative to Taiwan was removed abruptly, relocated to Rwanda, and no replacement was announced, Vatican officials have, it seems, felt forced to confirm that a new Nuncio will be appointed to Taipei soon – and that the Hong Kong mission of the Vatican “is not closed”.
This is welcome. But I would like to see more reassurance from Rome. I want to hear from the Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and the Secretary for Relations with States, my friend Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the following promises: that the Vatican will not form diplomatic relations with the Chinese Communist Party regime while it commits genocide against Uyghurs, continues the repression in Tibet, pursues persecution of Christians, commits crimes against humanity in terms of forced organ harvesting, perpetuates the persecution of Falun Gong or continues its repression of lawyers, dissidents and others in civil society and its severe repression in Hong Kong.
If they declare the following: they commit not to establish diplomatic relations with China, they promise not to betray the brave faithful in Hong Kong and Taiwan, they pledge to defend religious freedom, and if they pursue dialogue without any compromise on the truth, then I am with them. I am not against dialogue, far from it – on the contrary, as I recently wrote, the only issue for me is on whose terms.
Five last requests.
If Pope Francis meets with Cardinal Zen just once, it would be a pastoral act of mercy that would be so befitting his message. If he does so, my respect for him would be upheld. If he refuses, any last vestiges of respect I have for him would sadly crumble.
I also urge the Holy Father to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama: otherwise, he would be the only Pontiff in recent times to refuse to do so.
Why has Pope Francis or the Vatican not formally raised the plight of detained Catholic bishops and priests, and made this a condition of the continuation of any deal?
In particular the plight of Bishop James Su Zhimin. Where is he? Why won’t the Pope enquire?
And I encourage him to meet Uyghur representatives.
Similarly, Pope Francis seems to have a deep love of China.
To signify this, why not beatify both Matteo Ricci and Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, at the same time?
That might be the perfect answer.
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 organisation 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, and 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.