Pope John Paul II kisses Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-mei of Shanghai at their meeting in the Vatican in 1988 after the cardinal had spent 30 years in a Chinese jail for his refusal to reject papacy. (Photo: Cardinal Kung Foundation)
China-Vatican diplomatic sensitivity has been cited as the reason for the stalled beatification process of a heroic Chinese cardinal who died as an icon of papal loyalty after spending 30 years in a Chinese jail.
The Vatican has not yet started the beatification process of Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-mei, even as his 20th death anniversary passed off unnoticed in mainland China on March 12.
"Pushing for Cardinal Kung's beatification is a waste of time, and the Vatican would not accept it," said Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired bishop of Hong Kong.
Cardinal Zen and some church leaders believe that the Vatican considers an agreement that it signed with China on the appointment of bishops is more critical than the beatification process at this time.
The Vatican is reviewing the 2018 pact that reportedly agrees to end Beijing appointing bishops on its own, allowing the pope to appoint and veto bishops approved by the Chinese Communist Party.
"The Chinese government does not like Cardinal Kung, and therefore there is no public Mass for him," said Father Zhu Lide, who was imprisoned by the Communist Party for 27 years and now lives in Taiwan.
Four years after China cut off diplomatic relations with the Vatican, the communist regime arrested Cardinal Kung in 1955 as part of its crackdown on the church loyal to the Vatican and the pope.
In the next 30 years, he was kept in jail as the communist government began to control part of the Catholic Church, dividing it as the state-run open church and the underground church loyal to the Vatican.
In his long years in jail, Cardinal Kung emerged as a symbol of the underground church's loyalty to the Vatican and resistance against communism, say church leaders like Father Zhu.
While Cardinal Kung was still in prison, Pope John Paul II named him a cardinal "in pectore" in June 1979. The Latin term "in pectore" (within the heart) is used when a pope names a cardinal but does not announce it lest it invites danger for the cardinal or his community.
Cardinal Kung was released in 1986 but was kept under house arrest for two more years. He was unaware of his elevation to cardinal until he was released and met with the pope in the Vatican in 1988.
"Cardinal Kung is loved by the entire Church. At his time, there was only one Church, no underground or open church," Father Zhu said.
"All Catholics in China love him. His is a revered name for all Catholics but a prohibited one now in China."
The US-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, which has been working to open the cause of his beatification, said the process has not yet started because it needs approval from Vatican authorities.
"We were given to understand that opening a cause needs an ecclesiastical authority. Cardinal Kung's cause for sainthood has not been opened yet," Agnes Kung of the foundation told UCA News.
The state-run open community of Shanghai Diocese, which is under control of the government, would find it difficult to start the process of beatification with the Vatican, some Catholics noted.
However, Cardinal Kung's funeral was held at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford, Connecticut, in the United States after he died there of stomach cancer at the age of 98.
The Vatican could allow exceptions to initiate the process of beatification but is delaying the process because it does not want to offend China, Cardinal Zen told UCA News on March 16..
Several Catholic leaders including Cardinal Zen maintain that the Vatican has been sacrificing too much, including the underground church, in the name of the 2018 pact.
"Cardinal Kung is a faithful representative of the Catholic Church. How can the Vatican ignore his cause of beatification following Chinese authorities?" Cardinal Zen asked.
The Cardinal Kung Foundation also holds that that "the Church in China has suffered significantly more" after the deal was signed in terms of its shrinking freedom of worship.
"It has been reported that even the Holy Father and the [Vatican] secretary of state have stated in their interviews that they expected the underground church would suffer after the agreement is signed," it said.
Catholic leaders in China said the Vatican ignored even Catholic bishops jailed on the mainland as it rushed to sign the agreement.
Bishop Su Zhimin of Baoding, in his 80s, has been jailed for almost a quarter of a century, "unjustly for his fidelity to the Vicar of Christ," the foundation said.
His case was not part of the historic Vatican-China agreement. "It is extremely sad that the Vatican ... could not exchange one elderly Roman Catholic bishop in jail with eight excommunicated official bishops," it said.
It was referring to the eight excommunicated bishops, including one deceased, who were forgiven and recognized by Pope Francis as part of the China-Vatican deal.
"Even a civil authority would not desert its citizen or soldier in a dire and unjust situation," the foundation said.