The Hong Kong diocese is facing a diplomatic controversy ahead of a Mass celebrating the diocese’s newest cardinal, over the invitation of a bishop close to the Chinese Communist Party and Beijing government.
Cardinal Stephen Chow, SJ, of Hong Kong will celebrate on Saturday a Mass of thanksgiving for his elevation to the College of Cardinals.
But sources close to the diocese have told The Pillar that preparations for the event are being overshadowed by concerns about whether Bishop Joseph Li Shan of Beijing will be allowed to attend the Mass, while the diocese’s emeritus bishop Cardinal Joseph Zen is threatening to boycott the event if he does.
Li is president of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the Communist Party-affiliated state group which, together with the government, has moved to appoint several bishops to mainland dioceses without Vatican approval, despite the terms of the Vatican-China deal on episcopal appointments.
Zen, who retired as diocesan bishop in 2009, has been an outspoken critic of the 2018 Vatican-China deal, as well as the Beijing government’s treatment of Catholics on the mainland and its tightening of civil liberties in Hong Kong.
Cardinal Chow, 62, became Hong Kong’s ninth bishop in December, 2021 and was created a cardinal by Pope Francis in September.
The diocese has publicly confirmed a Mass of thanksgiving for Chow’s elevation to the rank of cardinal, set to be celebrated at 3pm local time on Nov. 4 in the diocese’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Officially, neither the Hong Kong or Beijing dioceses have confirmed an invitation to Li, or the bishop’s request for an exit visa from the mainland to attend. However, multiple senior sources in the local Church confirmed Chow’s decision to invite his mainland counterpart and that the decision had created tensions with Cardinal Zen.
According to multiple sources familiar with the plans, Cardinal Chow extended the invitation to Bishop Li but as of Friday evening it was not clear if the bishop would be granted permission by state authorities to attend.
“It’s not at all clear if the bishop will be able to come,” one Hong Kong priest told The Pillar, “it is clear the cardinal [Chow] is eager for him to be there, but it’s not sure it will be permitted.”
Last month, the Chinese government allowed two mainland bishops to attend part of the synod on synodality in Rome. The Pillar has reported that both men were granted 10 day exit visas from the mainland but both chose to overstay their permitted time away to remain in Rome for an extra two days.
Because of the significance and potential sensitivity around Li’s possible attendance, another senior cleric in China told The Pillar that the Hong Kong diocese was being “as tight as a clam” about the invitation.
In April, Cardinal Chow made an “historic” five-day visit to Beijing to visit Bishop Li, the first time a Bishop of Hong Kong has officially traveled to the mainland in some 30 years. Li is already scheduled to visit Hong Kong later this month in a reciprocal five-day trip beginning on Nov. 14.
But if Li is allowed to attend the Mass Saturday, one of Chow’s two living predecessors has said privately that he will refuse to concelebrate if Li is on the altar.
Sources close to Cardinal Joseph Zen have told The Pillar that while the 91-year old cardinal had been planning to attend the Mass Saturday and to concelebrate, he would decline to do so with the head of the CPCA.
As recently as July, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State widely credited as the architect of the 2018 deal, conceded that a pattern of mainland appointments “seem to disregard the spirit of dialogue and collaboration established between the Vatican and the Chinese side over the years and to which is referred in the [Vatican-China] Agreement
As relations between the Holy See and the Chinese government have strained in recent months, ecclesiastical figures on both sides of the causeway have sought to smooth tensions and reinforce episcopal ties, while Zen has remained a flashpoint in the diocese for his uncompromising stance on preserving the Church’s religious freedom from government interference.
In 2022, Cardinal Zen was arrested by national security police in Hong Kong over his role as trustee of a charity providing legal aid and other support to jailed pro-democracy protestors. Although first charged with collusion with foreign powers, Zen was eventually convicted and fined for a lesser offense of failing to properly register the charity.
One senior cleric told The Pillar that a “mighty amount of arm twisting” was underway to persuade Zen to concelebrate at Mass tomorrow if Li is able to attend, and to avoid overshadowing the celebration with controversy.
Another source familiar with the situation speculated to The Pillar that if Li was granted government permission to join the Mass and Zen refused to attend, the diocese might try to play off the senior cardinal’s absence as health-related.
“But good luck to them if they try,” the source said. “I doubt [Cardinal Zen] would go along with it.”
Since his installation as bishop in December 2021, Cardinal Chow has been eager to steer a course of conciliation in his diocese, where political divisions around Hong Kong’s legal status and the erosion of civil liberties are present in the local Catholic community.
Following his visit to the mainland earlier this year, Chow wrote about the Christian duty to be good citizens, while acknowledging tensions between the Church and the government, both in Hong Kong and on the mainland.
While reminding local Catholics of their duty to be good citizens, as taught by the Church, Bishop Chow also frankly acknowledged tensions and problems with state authorities and said that dialogue “is not about kowtowing.”
Local government officials, led by the Catholic chief administrator of Hong Kong, John Lee, have instigated a sweeping crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong in recent years, including the prosecution of Cardinal Zen.
At the time of his installation, Chow said that he had previously attended banned public gatherings in Hong Kong, including a prayer vigil to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which he has called a formative event in his life.
Since taking over the diocese, Chow has often sought to balance the conflicting political currents within the local Catholic community, and tensions with the government. In an interview last year, Chow noted that “culture can be subversive,” and he touted the importance of the Church’s education mission and work in schools.
Writing in the local Catholic newspaper last week, the bishop said that “a system or an ideology might be very problematic. Yet, humanity has its positive, brighter and loving side that can compensate for or even improve the system.”
“My Beijing trip taught me to appreciate ecclesiastical and government personnel in the light of a common humanity desiring for ends that encourage further understanding and collaboration,” Chow said, while at the same time frankly acknowledging that “we cannot be naïve about debilitating bureaucracy and political interests being some major obstacles to a fruitful dialogue.”
Authentic and fruitful dialogue, the bishops said “is not about kowtowing but a sharpening of core values in the search for a common approach.” “We can be hopeful the Holy Spirit can make and has made wonderful interventions through our humanity beyond imagination.”