The old, retired cardinal has had enough. He does not like what the Vatican is doing in China. He takes a plane and asks to be received by the pope. But instead of bringing it to an end, the encounter between the two men escalates the tensions around the Vatican's pending agreement with China, a deal between two opposing arms of Catholicism in one of the most strictly controlled regimes in the world.
The outcry of betrayal came from 86-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, affectionately named "Lion in Winter." For decades, Zen has been urging the Vatican to take a stronger stand in defending the Catholic Church from persecution and control by Chinese Communist authorities. Cardinal Zen, now retired, is a Shanghai native but fled to Hong Kong to escape Communist rule at the end of the Chinese Civil War. He spent almost whole his life in Southeast Asia, and traveled to China often.
In parallel with the centralization of power in the hands of Xi Jinping, Beijing is increasingly tightening its grip on the former British colony. In 2002, when Zen became bishop of Hong Kong, he helped to reinforce its political rights, shielding Hong Kong's autonomy from China's pervasive force. Zen, along with the younger generation of Hong Kong activists, is in no mood to compromise with Beijing.
The Catholic Church in China is run by the Communist party via the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). The latter does not recognize the authority of the pope and is loyal only to the Chinese Communist party. There is, however, an "underground Church" whose flock and priest are loyal to the pope and Catholic Church in Rome. While the priests of the patriotic church are ordained by CPA, and therefore serve at the will of the Communist party, the priests of the Underground are ordained by the pope in Rome, where they travel clandestinely.
So, when last month a delegation from the Vatican traveled to China and met Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian, 88, who presides over the church in Shantou, in the southern province of Guangdong, they were playing for power. In a meeting in Beijing, they asked Zhuang to retire in favor of a bishop, Huang Bingzhang, appointed by the Chinese government, and who is a member of China's parliament, the National People's Congress, and was excommunicated by the Vatican in 2011.
The most important question I put to the Holy Father was whether he had had time "to look into the matter".
When Zhuang, loyal to the pope, was ordered to retire to give the space to the pro-government and previously excommunicated Huang, he tearfully asked Cardinal Zen for help, giving him a letter of response to the Vatican's request. Cardinal Zen, suspecting that the pope no longer receives his mail, then does something incredible. He gets on a plane and flies to Rome, with Zhuang's and other suspiciously undelivered letters in his bag. On his blog, Cardinal Zen described what happened next:
In the afternoon of that day, 10th January, I received a phone-call from Santa Marta telling me that the Holy Father would receive me in private audience in the evening of Friday 12th January (though the report appeared only on 14th January in the Holy See bulletin). That was the last day of my 85 years of life, what a gift from Heaven! (Note that it was the vigil of the Holy Father's departure for Chile and Peru, so the Holy Father must have been very busy).
On that evening the conversation lasted about half an hour. I was rather disorderly in my talking, but I think I succeeded to convey to the Holy Father the worries of his faithful children in China.
The most important question I put to the Holy Father (which was also in the letter) was whether he had had time "to look into the matter" (as he promised Archbishop Savio Hon). In spite of the danger of being accused of breach of confidentiality, I decide to tell you what His Holiness said: "Yes, I told them (his collaborators in the Holy See) not to create another Mindszenty case"! I was there in the presence of the Holy Father representing my suffering brothers in China. His words should be rightly understood as of consolation and encouragement more for them than for me.
I think it was most meaningful and appropriate for the Holy Father to make this historical reference to Card. Josef Mindszenty, one of the heroes of our faith. (Card. Josef Mindszenty was the Archbishop of Budapest, Cardinal Primate of Hungary under Communist persecution. He suffered much in several years in prison. During the short-lived revolution of 1956, he was freed from jail by the insurgents and, before the Red Army crushed the revolution, took refuge in the American Embassy. Under the pressure of the Government he was ordered by the Holy See to leave his country and immediately a successor was named to the likings of the Communist Government).
Cardinal Zen's detailed account of his encounter with Pope Francis is telling. If the narrative in the blog is real — I have no reason to believe that is not — the two men discussed the removal of the bishops by the Vatican delegation during the visit to Beijing last December. According to Zen's account, Francis had no idea about the decisions and promised Zen he would investigate.
Zen never accused the pope of betraying the Church in China. In the exact words of Cardinal Zen: "So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all they are doing in recent years and months."
Did the Vatican's delegation to China act without knowledge of the pope? This would be greatly disobedient, considering the pope's absolute power. But sometimes even the God's arm is too short. John Paul II was very isolated, and he hated the curia. pope Ratzinger was elected to clean the Vatican's sinking boat, but had to resign, as he, according to his judgment, was not able to turn things around. So the cardinals elected a Jesuit, capable of dealing with the complexities of the church with untold insight, they thought. Francis started with sweeping and cleaning, reorganizing the Vatican's bank and finances, setting the mold for a more modern and humble Church.
But in the opaque world of the Vatican, it is extremely hard to judge the pope's effectiveness. However, as much as Francis' rhetoric is appealing, charismatic and close to the people, he is still a conservative, not a reformer. He is a better politician than pope Benedict XVI but does not have enough will or power to meaningfully approach the Church's necessary reforms, and regain its influence among its followers. Rather than open the doors of change at home, the Jesuit pope might instead conquer the Church's long-desired territory in pursuit of a more comfortable legacy.
Did the Vatican's delegation to China act without knowledge of the pope?
From this point of view, it is hard to believe that the pope does not know what is going on in China. That would mean that Francis did not speak truthfully to Cardinal Zen when the latter was expressing his outrage that the Vatican is now sacrificing its loyal priests and bishops in acquiescence to Chinese autocracy. But Zen, the old fox, published the pope's words, effectively holding him responsible in the court of public opinion. If the pope will not fulfill his promise to investigate and protect the loyal bishops of China, the martyrs of an approaching agreement, then Zen is ready to act, as he wrote in the final sentence of his post: "Am I the major obstacle in the process of reaching a deal between the Vatican and China? If that is a bad deal, I would be more than happy to be the obstacle."
So what would be the lousy deal for Zen, for "underground" Chinese Catholics? A deal that would force the Vatican to cave into the Beijing authorities, sacrificing the underground church on the altar of Chinese power. There are forces in the Vatican that staunchly support the 8 million followers of the underground church, and Cardinal Zen is no doubt one of them. (For the complete report on the religious situation in China, its congregations, and churches, see the Freedom House report.) While Zen is back in Hong Kong, we continue to watch reports that hint that the campaign against the underground church has already started; or, that Chinese authorities understand dialogue and democracy, by means of repression.
Zen stirred discussions, questions, and speculation. His post forced the two negotiating sides to speed up their negotiations, while Zen has become the target of the Hong Kong press, loyal to Beijing, which claims that Zen hates the Chinese communist government more than he loves the pope.
But the most substantial rebuttal of Zen's siren call came from the Vatican's Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, who denies every single word of the old cardinal without even mentioning his name. "Yes, the Holy Father personally follows current contacts with the authorities of the People's Republic of China. All his collaborators act in concert with him. No one takes private initiatives. Frankly, any other kind of reasoning seems to me to be out of place," said Parolin in an extensive interview for La Stampa.
Zen stirred discussions, questions, and speculation.
Parolin, a long time China hand in the Vatican, is orchestrating the negotiations with Beijing, which intensified two years ago, as noted in one of my previous posts. Parolin's interview is interesting because it explains the Vatican's reasoning and its justification for the situation on the ground:
In fact, communion between the Bishop of Rome and all Catholic Bishops touches the heart of the Church's unity: it is not a private matter between the pope and the Chinese Bishops or between the Apostolic See and civil authorities. The main purpose of the Holy See in the ongoing dialogue is precisely that of safeguarding communion within the Church, in the wake of genuine Tradition and constant ecclesiastical discipline. You see, in China, there are not two Churches, but two communities of faithful called to follow a gradual path of reconciliation towards unity. It is not, therefore, a matter of maintaining a perennial conflict between opposing principles and structures, but of finding realistic pastoral solutions that allow Catholics to live their faith and to continue together the work of evangelization in the specific Chinese context.
The above can be understood as the ideological foundation of the Vatican's plan to reconcile with the Chinese government-sponsored church while putting aside the one that is loyal to the pope. But then the interview reveals, even more, when Parolin declares:
With honesty and realism, the Church asks nothing but to profess her faith with more serenity, definitively ending a long period of contrasts, in order to give more room for greater trust and offer the positive contribution of Catholics to the good of Chinese society as a whole. Of course, many wounds are still open today. To treat them, we need to use the balm of mercy. And if someone is asked to make a sacrifice, small or great, it must be clear to everyone that this is not the price of a political exchange, but falls within the evangelical perspective of a greater good, the good of the Church of Christ. The hope is that, when God wills it, we won't have to speak of "legitimate" and "illegitimate" Bishops, "clandestine" and "official" Bishops in the Church in China, but about meeting among brothers and sisters, learning the language of collaboration and communion again.
Sacrifice is not a favor on behalf of the Beijing regime, but is for the good of the Church of Christ, claims Parolin. How old is this; how many times has the Church, and other regimes and ideologies, asked the populous to "sacrifice" for the greater cause? At what cost? Towards the end of the interview with Parolin, I knew there was something wrong, but could not quite pinpoint what makes the Vatican's claim on understanding, and therefore engineering, the complexity of humankind compatible with the Chinese nationalist state. What Parolin says here is a complete illusion:
I am convinced of one thing. Trust is not the result of the strength of diplomacy or negotiations. Trust is based on the Lord who guides history. We trust that the Chinese faithful, thanks to their sense of faith, will know how to recognize that the action of the Holy See is animated by this trust, which does not respond to worldly logics. It is especially up to the pastors to help the faithful to recognize in the pope's guidance the sure reference point for grasping God's plan in the present circumstances.
It will never happen as long as Beijing is run by a government whose credo is nationalism and the ongoing construction of imperial infrastructure at the expense of individual freedoms. And as long as the Holy See's power is based on the pretext that the Church is the only place that can guarantee the salvation of humankind, and bring it into God's hands, Parolin's vision will remain just that, a vision.
As an agnostic, I am compelled toward the dialogue between the two centers of power, which command 1.5 billion brethren each. And while I was writing this post, the Cardinal John Tong, bishop of Hong Kong, announced that China and the Vatican have reached an agreement on bishops. "China and the Vatican have reached consensus on the appointment of bishops, which will lead to the resolution of other outstanding problems," said Cardinal Tong, adding: "The Chinese government is concerned with problems on the political level, while for the Holy See, the problems are on the religious and pastoral levels."
If it is true that the agreement is soon to be signed while the two sides remain on the above-mentioned sides of the tensions, then dear brethren, and comrades, you have not achieved anything but broader grounds for argument, division, disintegration.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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