The leader of Hong Kong’s Catholic Church, Cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君), a staunch democracy campaigner and critic of China’s rights record, said yesterday he would retire early next year.
Zen said his third request to step down had been approved by Pope Benedict XVI.
“I applied the first time when I was 75 and it was not approved. At 76, I applied for the second time and it was also turned down,” he told local broadcaster RTHK.
“But fortunately, this time, I am nearly 77 and the pope said OK. In principle, it has been approved,” he said, adding he was planning to leave the post in the next few months.
Zen said he would not stop serving the Church after his retirement.
“I want to devote more time to the churches in the mainland, because they are very big and very complicated,” he said, adding he would not intervene in affairs between the Vatican and China.
The Shanghai-born cardinal, well-known for his outspoken calls for democracy and religious freedom, said he hoped his successor, Coadjutor Bishop John Tong (湯漢), would improve relations between the Vatican and Beijing.
“I have always hoped that through our voices, state leaders will understand that genuine religious freedom will definitely work towards the interest of the country,” he said.
Liu Bainian (劉柏年), vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a body set up by Beijing to supervise Chinese churches, told broadcaster Cable TV that Zen should adopt a different approach in dealing with China after his retirement.
“If he insists on his former way of thinking, it will not be advantageous to the improvement of China-Vatican relations,” Liu said.
Zen, head of the 250,000 Catholics in the territory since 2002, has not been afraid to criticize China, even while the Vatican has moved to improve diplomatic ties with Beijing.
The Holy See has long been at odds with China over who controls the booming Catholic Church in the world’s most populous country.
The Vatican wants all Chinese Catholics — currently divided between an “official” church sanctioned by the Chinese government and an underground one loyal to the Vatican — to be brought under papal authority.