On the night of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s funeral, Cardinal George Pell hosted a dinner in his apartment for a group of like-minded mourners, and all present were delighted that the heroic Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, who had been permitted to attend the requiem by Hong Kong’s thugocracy, agreed to join the party. The company assembled at 1 Piazza della Città Leonina could thus marvel at being in the presence of two contemporary “white martyrs”: men who had suffered greatly for the faith but had remained unbroken and full of the joy of the Lord.
As Providence would have it, Cardinal Pell, in hosting that dinner, “provided his own Irish wake” (as one of those present remarked after Pell’s unexpected death five days later). It was an apt description of a magical evening, in which the predominant mood of profound gratitude for Benedict XVI animated hours of robust conversation, full of wit and laughter. And as Cardinal Pell remarked afterward, “Cardinal Zen really was the star tonight, wasn’t he?” Indeed, he was.
At ninety-one years old and suffering irritating physical disabilities, the Shanghai-born Salesian cardinal remains incredibly energetic, and eagerly spoke about his work in the Hong Kong jail where the great Jimmy Lai and other political prisoners are held. The wardens, it seems, behave decently with Zen, allow him to stay as long as he likes, and don’t (overtly) monitor his conversations with the prisoners. The cardinal told of making several converts in the prison and was asked what he used for catechetical materials. The answers were striking: the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, of course, but also Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
But perhaps the most remarkable moment of the evening came when, after Cardinal Pell offered a moving toast to his brother cardinal, the conversation turned to those times when the Lord seems to be deaf to the pleas of his people—times not unlike what many Catholics experience today. Cardinal Zen reminded the group of the appropriate verses of Psalm 44 (“Rouse thyself! Why sleepest thou, O Lord? / Awake! Do not cast us off forever!”); remembered that those verses had been part of the Introit for Sexagesima Sunday in the old Roman liturgical calendar—and then proceeded to chant, from memory and in impeccable Latin, that entire Introit (which can be heard here).
Not unexpectedly, the conversation eventually touched on current Vatican China policy, of which Cardinal Zen has been a vocal and persistent critic. The issue, the Hong Kong prelate insisted, was the character of the Beijing regime, which lived in a different ethical universe, lied in negotiations, and could never be counted on to keep agreements it made. This, of course, was precisely what had turned the Vatican’s Ostpolitik in east central Europe in the 1970s into a fiasco: the Vatican negotiators’ refusing to concede the totalitarian “regime factor” involved, and therefore negotiating with communist governments as if they were run-of-the-mill authoritarians rather than mortal enemies of biblical religion.
Confirmation of Cardinal Zen’s analysis of the built-in perfidy of the Chinese communist regime came at virtually the same time as that dinner, when the British publisher Allen Lane released The Hong Kong Diaries of Chris Patten, which the last British governor of the Crown Colony had kept from his arrival in 1992 until the British withdrawal in 1997. The leading China policy mandarin in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in those days, Sir Percy Cradock, had told Patten that, while the Chinese leaders “may be thuggish dictators,” they were also “men of their word and would stick by what they had promised to do.” To which Chris Patten, strongly suspecting otherwise, replied, “I hope that’s true.”
That brisk exchange raises a question: Is Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, taking his cues from the late Percy Cradock? If so, Cardinal Parolin would better serve the Church’s cause in China if he paid attention to the far more realistic Chris Patten (himself a Catholic), who noted in his diaries that “One of the [Chinese negotiators’] more surreal tactics is to decline to explain what something means unless we offer a concession on our side. In other words, openness, accuracy and transparency are themselves regarded as Chinese concessions.”
Cradock and other career British diplomats assumed that, as Chris Patten puts it, “you have to go along with Beijing rather than risk arguments.” That spinelessness was bad enough for Her Majesty’s government in the mid-1990s. It is shameful for the Vatican today. And it ought to raise serious issues for those who imagine Cardinal Parolin as Pope Francis’s successor.