Holy Redeemer Church provides insider glimpse into Vatican-China situation

By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Considering the occasion, the Gospel message was spot on. “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of Me.”

The Mass on the evening of July 11 at Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church was celebrated by Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, and it was the memorial Mass of St. Augustine Zhao Rong, priest and martyr and his companion martyrs, which is formally celebrated July 9.

China still has martyrs, Cardinal Zen said in an interview. {{more}}

“We have living martyrs, two of our bishops have been in prison for 15 years and just recently (the government) arrested and beat priests.”

Cardinal Zen does not face the dangers of the Church in the rest of China – because of the understanding brokered between Great Britain and China when the colony was handed back to China in 1997.

“We have complete freedom of religion in Hong Kong,” Cardinal Zen said. “They call it one country, two systems. We belong to China but have a kind of autonomy.”

Because of this Cardinal Zen is free to travel to the West, but he is barred from the rest of China. “They tell me I can’t come unless invited, and they never invite me,” he said.

His visit to the United States and Canada to alert Chinese people to the religious persecution in their homeland comes against a background of increased tension between the Chinese government and the Vatican. The government seeks to supplant the Catholic Church in union with the Holy See with an autonomous “Patriotic church.”

On June 29 in Sichuan Province Father Paul Lei Shying was ordained a bishop by Bishop Johan Fang, president of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which is not sanctioned by the Holy See, with six other bishops (whose ordinations were recognized by the Vatican) also laying on hands.

Because Bishop Lei was not considered a suitable candidate for the episcopacy, papal approval for the ordination was withheld and he was automatically excommunicated. It is unclear whether the other bishops who participated in the ceremony are also subject to excommunication.

In Hebei Province, a Vatican-approved ordination of Father Joseph Sun Jeng as bishop on June 26 was barred by the government, and Father Sun was taken into custody. At the time the government said the ordination was too close to a national holiday.

The real reason, Cardinal Zen said, was because Father Sun refused to allow Patriotic Association bishops to participate in his ordination.

In the case of Bishop Lei, the Vatican objection to his ordination was inevitable because he is married and has a child, Cardinal Zen said.

“We have to be the Catholic Church,” he said. “If they want to start another church like the Protestants, that’s OK, but it is not the Catholic Church. If you are in communion with the Holy See you have to obey.”

The Cardinal criticized those Chinese Catholic leaders who follow the government dictates for reasons other than persecution.

“More dangerous than persecution is the allurement,” he said. “They give a lot of money to those who follow the government and that is very sad.”

Although there are difficulties, Cardinal Zen is hopeful for the future. The government estimates there are about 5 million Catholics in China. “We don’t know how many there are, but we know it is more than twice that,” he said.

“It’s very exciting to hear Cardinal Zen’s message, telling about the Church in China, especially for Chinese Catholics,” said Holy Redeemer parishioner John Ke. “It is important that we know about the persecution and suffering.”

The Cardinal’s Mass came at a time when Holy Redeemer Parish was mourning the previous day’s death of William Betz Sr., the father of their pastor Capuchin Father Thomas R. Betz, and the Mass was also a memorial to him.

“It’s a high honor to have this memorial Mass celebrated for our pastor’s father by a cardinal, and it is great to have him here to tell us what is happening in China,” said Augustina Yang, another parishioner.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.