Pope ‘prefers to avoid support for dissident clergymen’ says former Hong Kong cardinal after Vatican asks Chinese bishops to stand down

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Pope Francis has looked into the forced retirement of a so-called underground bishop in mainland China and suggested he would not push the Vatican to support a clergyman who is a dissident in their own country, according to retired Hong Kong cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun.

Zen, who recently had a private talk with the pontiff, said Pope Francis did not want “another Mindszenty case”, a reference to a campaigning Hungarian priest of the 20th century.

He added that the Vatican was “selling out the Catholic Church in China”.

Zen revealed some details of what should have been a private talk in a post on his Facebook page on Monday, following the Vatican’s recent decision to ask two underground bishops to stand aside for Beijing-approved ones – a perceived concession to China’s rulers.

The talk was held before news of that request broke.

“Many different versions of the facts and interpretations are creating confusion among the people,” Zen wrote in his post.

He said he flew to Rome to see the Pope on January 9, taking with him a letter written by Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian, 88, of Shantou, southern Guangdong province. According to a report by Asia News, the official press agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, a Holy See delegation to Beijing in December asked Bishop Zhuang to retire so a Beijing-backed bishop could take his place.

The replacement, Huang Bingzhang, was excommunicated in 2011 after he was consecrated without approval. He is also a member of China’s parliament.

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Beijing broke diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951. Since then, the Communist Party has closed churches and jailed priests. Catholics can legally worship in state-sanctioned churches, which are not overseen by the Vatican and have bishops appointed by Beijing rather than the Pope. But there is still a network of Catholic churches operating underground in China.

In his post, Zen said he met the Pope for about half an hour on January 12.

He said he asked the Pope if he had had time to “look into the matter” of Bishop Zhuang. He went on: “In spite of the danger of being accused of breach of confidentiality, I have decided to tell you what His Holiness said.”

He said that the pontiff replied: “I told them [his colleagues in the Holy See] not to create another Mindszenty case.”

Cardinal Josef Mindszenty was the archbishop of Budapest and cardinal primate of Hungary. He was persecuted for his opposition to fascism and communism in Hungary from the late 1910s to the 1940s, and eventually jailed. He was also known for criticising the Vatican’s attempts to deal with the Hungarian communist regime.

Zen did not elaborate on the Pope’s motives for wanting to avoid a similar situation in China.

Asia News reported that the Vatican also asked Bishop Joseph Guo Xijin of Mindong to become assistant to Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, one of the seven illicitly ordained bishops awaiting recognition from the Vatican.

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The move was seen by some as the Vatican’s bid to normalise ties with Beijing and end its formal relations with Taiwan. The Vatican is the only European state that maintains formal diplomatic relations with the Taipei government.

Zen is known for his strong stance against the Communist Party, and has long opposed the Vatican seeking a deal with Beijing, which he has said would damage the church’s credibility.

He has also called the Pope “naive”, saying he “doesn’t know the Chinese communists” and “the people around him are not good at all”.

He wrote in the online post: “Am I the major obstacle in the process of reaching a deal between the Vatican and China? If that is a bad deal, I would be more than happy to be the obstacle.”

And he went on in an even more strident tone: “So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all they are doing in recent years and months.”

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