Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former Bishop of Hong Kong and the most senior critic of Pope Francis’ policy of rapprochement with Communist China, has lost one of his foremost allies at the Vatican.
This past week the pope surprised many observers when he moved Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai, the cardinal’s fellow Salesian and second-in-command at the powerful Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (Propaganda Fide), out of Rome and down to Athens where he will serve as papal nuncio to Greece.
The prelate, who will be 67 next month, has no prior diplomatic experience.
Savio Hon has been Zen’s eyes and ears in the Roman Curia since late 2010. That’s when Benedict XVI named the Hong Kong-born archbishop to the secretary’s post at Propaganda. He did so on the recommendation of Zen and another powerful Salesian – then Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Archbishop Hon was the highest-ranking official of Chinese origins in the Roman Curia. He enjoyed a high profile in the previous pontificate, which was more attuned to Cardinal Zen’s hard line on dealing with (or bluntly confronting) China’s Communist authorities.
But when Pope Francis and his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, shifted to an Ostpolitik-style of engaging those authorities, Zen and the archbishop were increasingly isolated.
In June 2016, just when the Holy See and Chinese government officials were intensifying delicate negotiations aimed at finding a compromise on the appointment of Catholic bishops on the Mainland, Savio Hon was temporarily sent to Guam. For the next several months he would serve as apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Agaña where the ordinary was put under investigation for allegedly sexually abusing minors.
The Salesian archbishop was back full-time at Propaganda Fide for not even a year when his new appointment to Greece was announced.
What does this all mean?
First of all, it indicates that Pope Francis has a very clear strategy for engaging Communist China and, in this difficult operation, insists on aides who fully embrace this project. Cardinal Zen has very vocally and publicly criticized the pope for being, among other things, naïve in his approach. Savio Hon, as Zen’s unofficial delegate, was seen as less than cooperative.
It is also been whispered for some time that the archbishop did not enjoy a rosy working relationship with the current prefect of Propaganda Fide, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, a career Vatican diplomat who served as papal nuncio in Iraq and the Philippines, as well as the Holy See’s deputy secretary of state (Sostituto) for internal affairs. Insiders say the differences between the prefect and his deputy stemmed from issues other than China.
Some will see it as ironic and many others will see it as punitive that Savio Hon, who has no formal training as a papal diplomat, is being made a nuncio.
Heading the Holy See’s nunciature in Athens is not exactly viewed as a top-tier posting. But it is probably the end of the ecclesiastical road for the Hong Kong-born prelate, seeing that this sort of assignment lasts about four years. At that point, he will be nearly 71, one year beyond the age when a nuncio can request retirement.
While some will be tempted to see this as a slap in the face or a demotion, one should not forget that this is the same place where Archbishop Angelo Roncalli (the future John XXIII) also served as nuncio for more than a decade. In fact, he was also a Propaganda Fide official with no formal diplomatic training when Pius XI named him apostolic visitor to Bulgaria in 1925, thus launching Roncalli’s long years of distinguished service as a papal ambassador.
But even more recently popes have taken non-diplomats from Propaganda Fide and made them nuncios. One of the most memorable cases – and intriguing because of the circumstances surrounding it – happened back in 2004 when John Paul II sent Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, then No. 2 at Prop, to Indonesia as the Holy See’s chief envoy.
Ranjith, who has been Cardinal Archbishop of Colombo now since 2009, was a close ally and friend of the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The Sri Lankan prelate was known as a strong supporter of the Tridentine Mass and, as bishop of the Diocese of Ratnapura (1996-2001), he played a key role in the CDF investigation that led to the brief excommunication in 1997 of a theologian in his diocese, Fr Tisa Balasuriya OMI.
Many believe Ratzinger was influential in John Paul’s decision to call Ranjith to Rome in 2001 to serve as deputy to Propaganda Fide’s prefect at the time, Cardinal Crecenzio Sepe.
Ratzinger and Sepe were never close, to put it mildly. And some believe Ratzinger wanted Ranjith at Propaganda to keep an eye on an Italian cardinal seen as a big spender and a wheeler-dealer in all matters sacred and profane. It is a badly kept secret that what happened next, and in evident retaliation, Sepe convinced the ailing John Paul to send Ranjith to Indonesia, which was experiencing considerable civil strife at the time.
Sepe, who studied at the elite academy for papal diplomats, secured Ranjith’s transfer with the help of then-Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, another Vatican official that had a cool relationship with Ratzinger.
But the twists of history can bring bitter surprises. John Paul II died in April 2005 and Ratzinger was elected to succeed him. Just eight months into his pontificate Benedict XVI called Archbishop Ranjith back to Rome to be secretary at the Congregation for Divine Worship. The Sri Lankan’s exile to Indonesia thus ended less than two years after it had begun.
Five months after Ranjith’s new appointment was announced the other shoe dropped. Benedict unceremoniously dethroned Cardinal Sepe from his commanding perch at Propaganda Fide and sent him to be Archbishop of Naples.
All this is to say that what Pope Francis has done with Archbishop Savio Hon is not without precedence.
But still, more questions linger. No one has been appointed yet to take Savio Hon’s place at Propaganda. Will Francis choose a mid-level official who already has been working in this bureau or will he bring in someone from the outside?
And what about the fact that now there is no one of Chinese origins that holds a senior position in the Roman Curia? In fact, the presence of Asians, in general, is minuscule.
As a number of the top brass in the Vatican get set to move on – either because they’ve reached retirement age or fulfilled their term limits – perhaps the pope will look to the East for their replacements.
However, one thing seems to be certain – Archbishop Savio Hon’s move to Greece is just the beginning of a number of top-level personnel changes that Francis will soon be making at the Vatican.
This has sent a chill through the spines of those curia officials who have been less than thrilled with the reforms and adjustments the Jesuit pope has already implemented, even if he’s done so at a slow and steady pace. Some of these officials now fear that the winds of change are about to develop into a virtual hurricane Bergoglio.
Then we’ll see how many (ecclesiastical) climate change skeptics remain in the Catholic hierarchy.
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