My Pope Benedict

(Corrected edition of the working translation by Bree A. Dail by Cardinal Zen himself)

 1. The Pope Benedict I remember

I don’t remember when I first met Pope Benedict, but I do remember that when I got to know him personally, I felt that he was the opposite of what some people called him: “God’s rottweiler”. I felt that he was the most gentle and kind man I have ever known.

Of course, he had been in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for many years and had certainly had to question theologians with questionable  theological views, but I know that he always treated them with respect, courtesy and gentleness.

Cardinal Ratzinger was very gracious to the laity in general. He was serving in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is situated to the right of the Basilica of St. Peter, and his living quarters were to the left of the Basilica of St. Peter, so he would pass through St. Peter’s Square every day, and all who greeted him he would stop to greet them in return, to speak to them, and give them a blessing.

Later I had more contact with Cardinal Ratzinger at those meetings organized by Cardinal Tomko of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith to discuss the Church in China. He spoke in a wise and humble manner. He had an amazing memory, remembering very well what anyone had said.

2. My beloved Pope Benedict

I thank God for the excellent formation in the faith with the Salesians. The training I received in the novitiate and the philosophical school was rather conservative. The training I received when I went to Italy to study philosophy and theology was also traditional and serious, which helped me to respect the traditions of the Church. Of course, there was a pre-Vatican II atmosphere: we young students certainly had great hopes for the renewal of the Church, but it was not an attitude of abandoning the past and embracing the future. Pope John XXIII’s homily at the opening of Vatican II spoke to our expectations.

If one were to describe us as purely conservative or progressive, we could be described as progressive. And the young Professor Joseph Ratzinger, the expert brought to Vatican II by Cardinal Joseph Frings of the German diocese of Cologne, also belonged to the progressive school. But such a dichotomy is problematic, and the progress of life depends on a balance between the conservative and the progressive forces. The Council is the supreme authority of Pope and bishops in the exercise of their faithful leadership, and Ratzinger, once called progressive, has since been labeled conservative. Many will appreciate the Pope’s deep theology, and my training in the Salesian Community made it particularly easy for me to identify with his teachings.

The chaos in the Church after the Council was due to the insistence of some on extreme left or extreme right positions. Pope John Paul II (the “double name” is taken from Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, who led the Council of the Church), with the help of Cardinal Ratzinger, steadily led the Church since Vatican II.

3. Pope Benedict, who (I thought) loved me most

The meetings organized by Cardinal Tomko were mentioned earlier – when the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and the Secretariat of State worked together on the affairs of the Church in China, with Ratzinger attending as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

When he succeeded Pope John Paul II and took the name Benedict XVI, he showed special concern for our Church in China. The Pope’s choice of cardinals was absolutely personal, and he added me, the retiring Bishop of Hong Kong, to the list of the first cardinals he chose, clearly hoping that I could contribute to the affairs of the Church in China.

I had the opportunity to meet the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, a good friend of Pope Benedict. I asked him, “What do you think of our Holy Father?” Without hesitation, he said, “He is very shy.”

Benedict was reluctant to act with authority. At that time, the Prefect of “Propaganda Fide” was a very prominent Cardinal Dias. Monsignor Parolin was an official of the Secretariat of State in charge of the Sino-Vatican negotiations. The two did not quite agree with Pope Benedict’s strategy. Cardinal Bertone, the Secretary of State, was on the side of the Pope and a Salesian confrere of mine, yet he accepted to follow the two.

I complained to the Pope about this and asked him to let me speak face to face with the heads of the two departments in his presence. Wouldn’t it have been embarrassing for the Pope to hear complaints about his two top officials face to face with them? But the Pope accepted my request. Unfortunately, the meeting was not productive.

A letter that Pope Benedict wrote to the Catholics in China in 2007 was partially wasted (see my book “For the sake of Sion, I will not be silent”). A huge Commission that he had set up did not work very well, and then, when the new president Cardinal Parolin took office, made it quietly disappear without a trace.

I had the opportunity to visit in the Vatican Pope Benedict after his retirement, but of course I was not in a position to discuss any further issues with him at that time. When he published his book “Ultime Conversazioni”, he immediately sent me a copy with a personally written statement: “In prayer we are one” (“in unione di preghiera”). Shortly afterwards, Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai, probably unaware that the Pope had already sent me a copy, bought one and brought it to the Pope, asking him to sign it and then send it to me. This time the Pope wrote: “We are united in prayer and thought” (“in unione di preghiera e pensiero”). I thought, “I am a special favorite of the Pope”, isn’t that too much?

Pope John Paul often entertained his guests at table, but Pope Benedict rarely did. I remember the year I accompanied a pilgrimage of Hong Kong’s deacons to Italy to pray the “Angelus” with the Pope on Sunday. Benedict was on summer vacation in Belluno, northeast Italy. He obtained to have Italian Police to bring me in helicopter from Venice to Belluno. After the “Angelus” they said to me, “The Pope invites you to lunch.” I will never forget the warmth of that meal.


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