In a move that has stunned the Catholic Church and the world community, today China’s national security police arrested Cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君紅衣主教), bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. He was charged with "collusion with foreign forces." According to police, Cardinal Zen was suspected of advocating that foreign governments sanction Hong Kong and/or China.
Also charged in connection with this case were senior barrister Margaret Ng, activist and pop singer Denise Ho, former lawmaker Cyd Ho, and former professor Hui Po-keung. All five, including Cardinal Zen, were trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which was setup to provide legal and humanitarian support for those arrested during Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations.
After being questioned for several hours at the Chai Wan Police Station and having his passport confiscated, Cardinal Zen was released on police bail. He departed without making any comment to the media.
Cardinal Zen is a member of the Society of Saint Francis de Sales, more commonly known as the Salesians of Don Bosco, or simply the Salesians. He earned a doctorate in philosophy, taught at Hong Kong’s Holy Spirit Seminary, and served as provincial superior of the Salesians in China. He served as Bishop of the Diocese of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009, and during that time, in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI elevated him to the cardinalate. Born in 1932, he is 90 years old.
Cardinal Zen has consistently been an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and as a result, after teaching from 1989 to 1996 at seminaries in China mainland, he was barred from returning. He has been an ardent advocate of democracy in Hong Kong, showing up at protests and standing among young people in the front lines in tee shirt and jeans.Also a critic of the unpublished accord that the Vatican struck with Beijing, Cardinal Zen has repeatedly urged that the Holy See stand up for the “underground church” in China, that is, those Catholics who refused to operate under or cooperate with government regulation of the Church.
In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI published a pastoral letter in which he outlined a way forward for Chinese Catholics to balance their civic responsibilities and their duty to Christ. This letter has served as a foundational document for Chinese Catholics ever since. In 2019, Cardinal Zen published For Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent: On the Situation of the Church in China, an extended reflection on the origin and significance of this letter and the deteriorating freedom of the Chinese Church.
In response to journalists’ questions concerning the arrest of Cardinal Zen, Matteo Bruni, Director of the Holy See Press Office, said simply, “The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen's arrest and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention.”
White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “Freedom of expression [is] critical to prosperous and secure societies. We call on PRC and Hong Kong authorities to cease targeting Hong Kong’s advocates and to immediately release those who have been unjustly detained and charged, like the Cardinal Joseph Zen … and others arrested today.”
The Hong Kong Diocese was more restrained. Not wanting to inflame the situation, it has resisted issuing a statement pending further clarification.
While all members of the Church, including cardinals, should follow those civil laws that do not violate justice, we can rightly ask whether Cardinal Zen’s work for the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund was subversive of the state or whether it in fact promoted the health of the state and its adherence to the highest standards of justice. Indeed, many residents of Hong Kong do not consider Cardinal Zen anti-Chinese, but rather consider him a great patriot.
We pray that all people in Hong Kong will work together for the good of their community, and that the authorities in the territory will welcome the participation of all, even those who voice criticism of particular policies.
Addendum as of 5/17/2022:
In light of Cardinal Zen’s arrest, it is worth pointing out that he is no stranger to Hong Kong’s prisons. As a registered chaplain, he has been a regular, visiting and giving hope to those who have been cut off from the outside world.
Imprisoned pro-democracy activist Leung Wing-lai recalled advice that Cardinal Zen offered him on one such visit. “He said ‘Remember, you can be angry, but do not have hatred’” (as reported in The Guardian 5/16).
Cardinal Zen will return to court on May 24. That is the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, a feast honored at the Basilica of Our Lady in Sheshan and a day that Pope Benedict XVI set aside for the entire Church to pray for Christians in China.
At this time, we pray for China. We pray that Chinese authorities proceed with justice. We pray for the people of Hong Kong. And we especially pray for Cardinal Zen, as well as Margaret Ng, Denise Ho, Cyd Ho, and Hui Po-keung, who were all charged in connection with their role on the Board of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund.