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The announcement is telegraphic, in “L'Osservatore Romano” of this afternoon:
“The Holy Father has appointed as Apostolic Nuncio in Greece H.E. Mons. Savio Hon Tai-fai, S.D.B., tit. Archbishop of Sila, until now Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.”
But behind these three lines is the sending into exile of the only high official of Chinese nationality in the Roman curia.
His displacement, which is geographic as well, from second in command of the powerful Vatican congregation “de propaganda fide” to nuncio in Athens is in fact anything but a promotion.
Hon Tai-fai had been secretary of the congregation since 2010. And in these seven years he worked actively on the portfolio of relations between the Holy See and China, among other activities participating in the ad hoc committee created by Benedict XVI but not convened again by Pope Francis.
Hon Tai-fai was the point of reference at the Vatican for Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong and an intransigent critic of an agreement with Beijing that would endanger the survival of the Chinese Catholic Church not subjugated to the regime.
A Salesian like Cardinal Zen and a talented theologian, Hon Tai-fai was a member of the international theological commission and edited the Chinese translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
it came as a surprise last year when he was sent to distant Guam, in the Pacific, as apostolic administrator, with the task of restoring order to the diocese of the island, devastated by scandals of every kind.
Charged with accusations of sexual abuse dating back decades and under pressure from the nuncio, the German Martin Krebs, to tender his resignation “at the pope’s behest,” the archbishop of Guam, Anthony Apuron, a Capuchin and a fervent supporter of the Neocatechumenal Way, flew to Rome in May of 2016 to explain his innocence to Pope Francis, but was not able to get an audience. After returning to the island, he suspended himself and asked Rome to send an apostolic visitor, who soon arrived in the person of none other than Hon Tai-fai.
He first ordered the priests of the diocese to resign from their positions, and then proceeded with new appointments that put back in the saddle the priests who had previously been demoted by the bishop and his inveterate adversaries, first among them the former pastor of the cathedral, James Benavente, with terrible credentials as an administrator, less than exemplary virtues and a flagrantly luxurious lifestyle, and in spite of this a close friend of Filipino cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, an emblem of the new “poor” Church of pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Hon Tai-fai remained in Guam for five months, until the appointment as new coadjutor archbishop of the diocese - meaning with right of succession - of the American Michael J. Byrnes, who continued working in the same direction.
The price for this upheaval was mainly paid by the Neocatechumenal Way, which had its “Redemptoris Mater” seminary closed and was almost expelled from the island. Curiously, the prefect of “propaganda fide,” Cardinal Fernando Filoni, is however a great supporter of the Neocatechumens, unlike his then-subordinate Hon Tai-fai, and the events in Guam must have widened in no small part the chasm between the two and hastened the latter’s removal from Rome.
Meanwhile, in February of this year Francis sent Cardinal Raymond L. Burke to Guam in his capacity as a canonist, to substantiate or not the accusations made against the self-suspended bishop Apuron. Burke and four other judges, all bishops, will have to make their ruling soon.
Which, if it should recognize Apuron’s innocence, would again force the diocese into yet another rearrangement, of a character opposite to that set in motion by Hon Tai-fai, who as of today has been sent not very courteously to the modest nunciature of Athens. To conduct diplomacy, but farther than ever from Beijing.
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)