The season of Advent and Christmas has always been one of the most intense moments of the liturgical year, as we remember the Incarnation of the Son of God who comes to save us. A beautiful testimony is that offered by the Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, who in a new book offers his meditations on this liturgical season. The material was rearranged by me for publication in collaboration with Cardinal Zen, who revised everything.
We recently asked His Eminence about his new book and much more.-AP
Aurelio Porfiri: Your Eminence, how are you?
Cardinal Zen: Quite well I would say, my health is not too bad for my age, I am now approaching 92 years old and therefore I am very grateful to God who has allowed me to get to this day in pretty good shape. In everything we must be grateful to God for what he offers us. After some difficult moments, I now feel my strength returning and I hope that soon I will be able to resume my previous activities, such as visiting prisoners, an apostolate that I care a lot about and which I have now carried out for more than 20 years.
Do you keep yourself informed about current events?
Certainly, I keep myself very informed about news, especially those about the Church which naturally interest and concern me in a very special way. Today, with the modern means of communication, it is quite easy to stay updated on everything that happens. We must be able to make good use of these means and naturally, in the case of news that comes to us from many different and disparate sources, we must be able to read it critically, exercising a healthy prudence. Let’s think about the contradictory information that comes to us, for example, about the ongoing wars, which are not only wars over territory, but above all wars of propaganda.
What can you tell us about your Advent book, your meditations?
Truthfully, they are texts taken mainly from my homilies and speeches, dating back several years. After you rearranged all the material, I revised it, making corrections here and there. It seems to me that a fairly organic whole has emerged which I hope the reader will also find useful for his spiritual progress. Even if the title only refers to Advent, in the book there are texts that refer to Advent and Christmas. This is a time of grace, a time in which we prepare to welcome the Holy Child. May we, like the shepherds and magi of the East and like Joseph and Mary, welcome the coming of the Holy Child who brings us peace and love. If we feel we belong to the group of “great sinners” we must not despair because Jesus was born precisely for us. Let us not imitate the innkeepers of Bethlehem, nor the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the people, the cruel Herod, because they have closed their hearts. The poor cannot enter. So Jesus will not enter. But we should pray for them and ask God to open the door of their hearts, to melt their hearts of stone. Because they too are children of God. We must hope that those who are outside can enter and that those who are inside can remain.
How does one live this special time in which the Son of God becomes incarnate for the salvation of all men?
In truth it is a time of grace for everyone, a time in which we are called to hasten like the shepherds or the Magi to the manger to adore the Baby Jesus. In a beautiful Christmas carol, “Adeste Fideles,” it is said “et nos ovanti gradu festinemus [with joyful step let us hasten]” to go and be in the presence of Emmanuel, “God with us”. This is a time in which we also strongly feel the presence of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Mary who is our help, Mary Help of Christians, a name so dear to us Salesians. How we must entrust our pains and sufferings to Mary! Today it seems to us that there is much to despair about but Mary does not abandon us, she is with us and she shows us her Son, our Savior.
In the book there is a section in which you recall some liturgical songs for Advent and Christmas. Why?
That is actually a completely new part. I accepted your proposal to talk about these Advent and Christmas songs and I wanted to bring back some memories of my early youth, when I was welcomed by the good Salesian fathers in my city, Shanghai. The liturgy and sacred music were an important part of all this. I believe it is important to remember the role of good sacred music in the liturgy. For me, sacred singing, especially Gregorian chant, is a very important spiritual help that has supported me and continues to support me in difficult moments. I am very saddened that today this richness for the life of the Church has been lost. I understand that there was a desire to make the assembly participate more in the Mass through singing, but we shouldn’t have thrown away all our beautiful musical tradition, a real shame. Subsequently, was this participation of the assembly really achieved? In many places it seems to me that the musical tradition of the Church has been sacrificed without receiving anything in return.
In the Church this seems like a delicate moment, a moment in which there are divisions and unrest in some countries, such as Germany. What has been your experience facing these things?
I am concerned. What is happening in Germany seems to me to be similar to what happened in Holland, where the faith experienced a devastating crisis. I am concerned that some, under the pretext of synodality, may wish to advance a very personal agenda which involves the introduction of ideas which are in direct conflict with the doctrine of the Church, a doctrine which the Church has the duty to cherish and which cannot change. Today we are experiencing great confusion and I believe that it is appropriate to point out that openness to the new does not mean distorting the foundations of our faith. The dear Pontiff Benedict XVI, whom I remember with so much affection, warned us of the danger of these doctrinal “landslides”. How much is this still listened to? It seems to me that today his legacy is not respected and it is a shame, because he was a great intellectual for the Church. Yet I seem to see signs of great discontinuity between what happens today and previous pontificates. To Jesus we entrust his barque, his Church, during the storm on the lake, because only He can lead it to safety.
The Synod on Synodality has just concluded, what do you think?
Here too I couldn’t help but express my concern. The Synod, as Saint Paul VI wanted it, is a consultative body for the Bishops in union with the Pope. It might seem like making non-Bishops vote would be a good thing but in reality it is not for the simple fact that it distorts what a Synod should be. In this way the very structure of the Church is affected. On 15 September 1965 Paul VI erected the Synod as an emanation of the Council and specified: “with Our apostolic authority we erect and constitute in this noble City a permanent council of Bishops for the universal Church, subject directly and immediately to Our power and which we name the Synod of Bishops.” Synod of Bishops! Of course, a little further on the Pope said that this Synod could be perfected but not in the sense of being distorted. I did not hide my dismay at some of the initiatives that were seen during the days of the Synod and I felt a certain discouragement, this I must confess.
You seem very worried about this Synod. You, with other Cardinals, also signed the dubia addressed to the Holy Father, who this time responded. Are you not happy?
Here it is not a question of being happy. The Pope (or someone on his behalf) drafted a response, unusually quickly, to our dubia, but unfortunately the response does not really clarify the issues we had submitted to him. It seems to be the usual method used in the Church in recent decades, in which one does not answer “sì sì no no,” but gives answers that apparently close the front door on some issues, leaving the back door wide open. The people of God need clarity, they need to have firm references in matters of doctrine and morality, not these slippery answers. We are already living in times of great uncertainty, the Church must offer safe doctrine, not fluid matter. A Carthusian motto reads: stat crux dum volvitur orbis, the cross is still while the world turns. Here, we must try to recover this strong sense of our faith. We must reach those who are far away but to bring them back to the fold, not to have them take us out of our home! We remember that Saint John Paul II at the beginning of his pontificate asked us not to be afraid and to open the doors to Christ, but from what I observe it seems to me that many in the Church are worried about pleasing the world, rather than pleasing Him.