The Vatican’s Choice: Jimmy Lai or Xi Jinping?

In mid-May, Chinese leader Xi Jinping unveiled a plan to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and impose draconian new “national security” laws on the former British colony. Putatively intended to defend Hong Kong from “secessionists,” “terrorists,” and “foreign influence,” these new measures are in fact designed to curb the brave men and women of Hong Kong’s vibrant pro-democracy movement, who have been aggravating the Beijing totalitarians for a long time. With the world distracted by the Wuhan virus (which the Chinese government’s clumsiness and prevarication did much to globalize), the ever-more-brutal Xi Jinping regime evidently thinks that this is the moment to crack down even harder on those in Hong Kong who cherish freedom and try to defend it.

This latest display of Beijing’s intent to enforce communist power in Hong Kong coincides with the most recent persecution of my friend, Jimmy Lai.

Jimmy and I have only met once. But I have long felt a kinship with this fellow-Catholic, a convert who first put his considerable wealth to work in support of important Catholic activities and who is now risking all in support of the pro-democracy movement in Kong Kong. Arrested in February, and then again in April, Jimmy Lai has been charged with helping organize and lead “unauthorized protests.” That he was in the front ranks of pro-democracy demonstrations is true. The question is, why do the Chinese communists regard peaceful protest in support of freedoms Beijing solemnly promised to protect as treasonous?

In late May, the thugs in Beijing tightened the ratchet of repression another notch: Jimmy Lai’s case was transferred to a court that could give the 72-year old a five-year sentence, or even consecutive sentences. But what else could be expected from a regime that was already trying to bankrupt Lai’s pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, by pressuring both Chinese and international firms to stop buying advertising space there? Shamefully, far too many have kowtowed to those pressures, and a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed article reported that Apple Daily is now cut off from 65% of the Hong Kong advertising market. Meanwhile, Beijing, while trying to reassure the business community that everything will be just fine, warns business leaders (as well as diplomats and journalists) not to “join the anti-China forces in stigmatizing or demonizing” the new national security laws.

The Xi Jinping regime may be less stable than it wants the world to think it is. Secure regimes do not increase repression, as Beijing has done for several years now. Moreover, labeling all criticism of the Xi Jinping government as “anti-China” is not the play a regime confident about its legitimacy and stability would make. Such tactics seem clumsy; they bespeak sweaty nervousness, not calm self-assurance.

The attempt to break the Hong Kong democracy movement is one facet of a broader campaign of repression that has not spared Chinese religious communities on the mainland. One million Muslim Uyghurs remain penned in Xinjiang concentration camps, where they are being “educated.” Protestant house churches are under constant threat. And repressive measures continue to be taken against Catholics and their churches, despite the almost two-year old (and still secret) agreement between the Holy See and Beijing. That agreement, which gave the Chinese communist party a lead role in the nomination of bishops, looks ever more like one in which the Vatican gave away a great deal in return for hollow promises; Chinese Catholics who do not toe the party line as the Chinese communist party defines that line are still persecuted. The effects of this sorry affair on the Church’s evangelical mission in the China of the future – hopefully, a post-communist China – will not be positive.

Around the world, voices have been raised in support of Hong Kong’s brave pro-democracy demonstrators. Has the Holy See’s voice been heard? If so, I missed it and so did many others. Are strong representations in favor of religious freedom and other basic human rights being made by Vatican officials behind the scenes in Beijing and Rome? One might hope so. But if the Holy See’s current China policy is in fact a reprise of its failed Ostpolitik in central and eastern Europe during the 1970s, those representations are more likely tepid and wholly ineffectual.

With one of its most courageous Catholic sons now in the dock and facing what could be life-threatening imprisonment, the Vatican now faces a defining choice: Jimmy Lai or Xi Jinping?

COMING UP: Extraordinary evangelization in extraordinary times

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I’d heard about Father Alexander Sherbrooke long before we met in June 2011; Father Sherbrooke had been a mentor for young friends of mine who had worked at St. Patrick’s Church in London as pastoral assistants and catechists. When we finally got to know each other in person, I had that wonderful experience of knowing, almost instantly, that here was someone with whom I would remain in serious (but also rollicking) conversation – someone on whose friendship I could rely as spiritual ballast.

What Father Sherbrooke has done at St. Patrick’s in his 17 years as its pastor is little short of miraculous. Soho Square, where the parish is located, is in London’s West End, a thoroughly decadent part of the city that caters to every imaginable human appetite. The church’s roof was penetrated by a Luftwaffe bomb during World War II and the parish was in tough shape, pastorally and financially, when Father Sherbrooke arrived.

Then came the miracles of grace, channeled through constant prayer, hard work, pastoral imagination, and support from the pastor’s many friends and followers.

Today, St. Patrick’s is the thriving center of the New Evangelization in one of the unlikeliest neighborhoods of one of the world’s most diverse cities. Beautiful liturgy in a magnificently renovated church, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a prayer-line the afflicted can call for spiritual assistance, an extensive ministry to the poor, and a catechetical school that’s trained dozens of young Catholics for work in the trenches of 21st-century evangelization fill out an exceptional pastoral program – all of which is fueled by the parish’s intense Eucharistic and Marian piety.

I’ve been a frequent guest at St. Patrick’s over the past nine years (and had hoped to return in late May). On one occasion, I was permitted to pour the gravy at the Christmas dinner the parish hosts for those who would otherwise have no Christmas dinner. On another, I participated in an Advent procession through the streets of the West End: a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was borne on the shoulders of parishioners, amazing those who came out of the local pubs and shops to see what was afoot (anyone who inquired was given a Miraculous Medal or a rosary, and a prayer card). There was little about St. Patrick’s, I thought, that could surprise me.

But Father Sherbrooke and his people have now outdone themselves.

The parish had long helped the homeless who depend on whatever they can beg from those going to toney West End restaurants, theaters, and pubs. With those venues shut down by the Wuhan virus, many were in desperate straits. So Father Sherbrooke and the parish stepped up, persuaded two well-regarded restaurants and the Pret-a-Manger chain to provide meals and sandwiches, and in recent weeks have been feeding over 200 people a day, some of them twice a day. Meals are served and lavatory and shower facilities are available in the church’s undercroft; the volunteers who staff this work of charity and solidarity take appropriate measures to ensure that St. Patrick’s doesn’t become a center for spreading infectious disease.

At the center of this striking example of Christian service is the Eucharist. Mass is celebrated on the sidewalk in front of the church and Eucharistic adoration follows, typically accompanied by the rosary. A prayerful reading of the Scriptures, the traditional lectio divina, is available for those who wish to participate; so is confession; both are conducted in special tents. Those who come to the church to be fed are also offered spiritual sustenance in a printed weekly program that includes suggestions on how to pray, biblical readings, and simple meditations. Evangelization and catechesis are thus wedded to service of the poor.

The glue that binds it all together is the deep Catholic conviction and intense spiritual life of Father Sherbrooke, which inspires a generosity of spirit and a passion for mission in others. At St. Patrick’s in Soho Square, truth and mercy meet, as they’ve met in the lives of Father Sherbooke, his parish staff, and the volunteers. There is something quite biblical about this, as those who’ve been reading the Acts of the Apostles with the Church during this strangest of Eastertides will recognize.

Evangelization, which must always include the witness of caring for the Master’s lost sheep, is the new normal in the Catholic Church. It was the new normal at St. Patrick’s years before COVID-19. And that prepared the parish for its extraordinary work in extraordinary times.

Featured image courtesy of St. Patrick’s Soho Facebook page