Rome Is Calling Beijing - But the Connection Keeps Getting InterruptedSigns of growing closeness between China and the Vatican alternate with sudden breakdowns. The four empty seats at the synod. The new bishop recognized by both the government and the pope. The invitation to the sisters of Mother Teresa. "La Civiltà Cattolica" adds up the figures
ROMA, October 27, 2005 – During the three weeks of the worldwide synod of bishops which ended just recently at the Vatican, four seats remained empty: those of the four bishops of continental China invited by the pope, but forced to remain at home by the Chinese authorities.
In the homily at the concluding Mass of the synod, on Sunday, October 23 in St. Peter's Square, Benedict XVI expressed his "acute sorrow" on account of their absence, and the closeness of the entire Church to the "path of suffering" of the Chinese Church.
The Holy See had been working for a year to obtain the participation of the four bishops at the synod, and at first the signs were encouraging.
It had also carefully studied the question of which bishops it should invite. Two of the four had long been recognized by the Beijing government: Anthony Li Duan, bishop of Xian, and Aloysius Jin Luxian, bishop of Shanghai. Another of them, Luke Li Jingfeng, was recognized by the government just a year ago, but without being required to enroll in the Patriotic Association. The fourth, Joseph Wei Jingyi, bishop of Qiqihar, lacked official recognition. Rome's intention was that of demonstrating that they all belong to the same Church, in spite of each one's different path.
But in the end, permission to go to Rome was not granted to any of the four.
Each of them wrote a letter to the pope, in Latin, in order to thank him and express their full fidelity to him. The letters arrived at the Vatican at the beginning of October. On the 18th, cardinal secretary of state Angelo Sodano read the one written by the bishop of Fengxiang, Li Jingfeng, at the synod hall. Benedict XVI has replied to all of them by letter. But the correspondence has not been made public. The only text that the Vatican has released, on October 22, is the letter written to the four Chinese bishops by the synod bishops as a whole.
The day after his letter was read at the synod, bishop Li was summoned by the office for religious affairs of the province of Shaanxi. In other times, he would have been accused of treason in the service foreign powers for what he did. But on the following day the vice-president of the Patriotic Association, which controls the official Church, Liu Banian, declared on television that the pope's invitation to the four bishops "expresses Benedict XVI's great concern for improving diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican."
While the synod was still taking place, news came of the death of bishop Peter Zhang Bairen of the diocese of Hanyang in the province of Hebei.
Deceased at the age of 91, Zhang had spent 24 years of his life in prison and forced labor. He belonged to the "underground" Church, the one without official recognition. In spite of this, the Chinese authorities permitted that his funeral be celebrated publicly, in his home town. And in spite of the fact that mass participation was discouraged, seven thousand of the faithful showed up. The funeral was concelebrated by 15 priests on October 15, and also had the participation of local government exponents, who carried a wreath of flowers with the writing "To Mr. Zhang Bairen."
Three days later, on October 8, a new bishop was ordained in the province of Szechuan, Paul He Zeging.
The new bishop was assigned as an auxiliary to the current bishop of the diocese, Joseph Xu Zhixuan. And at the beginning of the ritual, Zhixuan told those present that the ordination was taking place with the approval of the Holy See, in addition to its recognition by the government. This is the third episcopal ordination to take place in 2005 with this sort of parallel recognition. The previous two were the ordinations of Joseph Xing Wenzhi in Shanghai and of Anthony Dang Mingyan in Xian.
An area of the new bishop's diocese will be submerged under the waters of the Blue River, the Yang Tze, once the huge Three Gorges Dam project is completed. But the government has authorized the diocese to rebuild at a higher level the five churches that will be lost.
The new bishop, He, is 37. Together with him, the Chinese Church is lining up a whole new generation of bishops who are among the youngest in the world: a daring bet on the future. Of those ordained in 2004, four out of five are under 40. Of those ordained in 2005, two out of three are. All have received the approval of both Rome and the Chinese authorities.
This twofold approval has become almost a generalized reality. Year after year, Rome has extended its recognition to the bishops that the Chinese government has installed with the intention of creating a separate Church. And in return, the Chinese authorities now tacitly accept the fact that the new bishops formally elected according to the procedures established by the government have the prior approval of the Holy See.
In a contribution at the synod on October 12, the bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, said clearly:
"After long years of forced separation, the overwhelming majority of the bishops of the official Church have been legitimated by the magnanimity of the Holy Father."
And on the contrary:
"Especially over the last few years, it has become more and more clear that the bishops ordained without the approval of the Roman pontiff are accepted neither by the clergy nor by the faithful. It is to be hoped that in the face of this 'sensus Ecclesiae' the government of Beijing will see the advantage of coming to a normalization of the situation, even if the 'conservative' elements within the official Church are creating resistance for obvious motives of self-interest."
"The Church in China, which is apparently divided in two – an official Church recognized by the government and a clandestine one that refuses to be independent from Rome – is in reality a single Church, because everyone wants to remain united with the pope."
So even amid enormous difficulties, the reunification of the Chinese Catholic community is underway, and this is also affecting relations between the Holy See and China. The communist regime's attempt to subjugate a significant portion of the national Church and separate it from Rome would seem to have failed.
Another sign of change is the invitation extended last April by the Chinese authorities for the sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta to open one of their houses in China.
Sister Nirmala, the present mother general of the order, went to China in mid-July in order to visit the area chosen, Qingdao in the province of Shangdong. And now she is waiting for the go-ahead.
Benedict XVI is following events in China very attentively. And he too, in his turn, is under observation by the Chinese authorities. His first book of theology, "An Introduction to Christianity," has been translated by a publishing house in Shanghai and was quickly sold out in the state-run bookstores, where the texts of the Catholic Church almost never receive the nihil obstat for distribution.
Even before communism, the traditional subordination of religion to the sovereign power, so typical of Chinese culture, made it difficult to establish full religious liberty in China.
Until the modern era, there was no word for "freedom" in China, neither in the philosophical nor in the political sense. And in any case the word that has now entered into common usage gives the idea that freedom is something granted to the individual by a superior power.
An article that appeared in "La Civiltà Cattolica" on October 15, 2005, much of which is reproduced below by the kind permission of the journal, paints an interesting portrait of the present situation of the Catholic Church in China.
Produced in Rome by a group of Jesuits, each edition of "La Civiltà Cattolica" is examined by the Vatican secretariat of state before it is printed. It therefore authoritatively reflects the point of view of the Holy See on the topics it discusses, in this case on China.
The author of the article, a Jesuit, is a professor emeritus of theology at the University of Bonn.
China Is Opening Up. Impressions from a Voyage
by Hans Waldenfels, S.J.
Last June I paid my third visit to continental China, not counting my many trips to Hong Kong and Taiwan. […] In Beijing I gave lectures at three scientific institutions, and there were discussions afterward. On the one hand, my colleagues emphasized that science is a realm of liberty, where one is free to think and say out loud whatever one wishes. But on the other hand, one cannot pass silently over the fact that beginning at least in 2003 new and obvious restrictions and forms of censorship have been imposed upon scientific work. This control applies above all to texts of a religious nature and a universal ideological import, but also to the philosophy of religion. In this area, it must also be recalled that in the meantime there is no longer any talk, or at least no sustained discussion, of the so-called "culturally Christian" Chinese, who had been known to Europe for some time. These are intellectuals who have not been baptized, but who assign great importance to Christianity on the level of cultural life and are strongly sympathetic toward it.
In my lectures, I was certainly able to express considerations of a philosophical-religious nature on questions of hermeneutics and linguistic problems, and also on the relationship between faith and reason, and on the dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity. But the most important thing was always to adopt a scientific perspective, and never speak in terms of a religious confession. From this point of view, the concept of theology is always suspect. But this does not exclude the demonstration of interest in the roots of European civilization, including the developments that took place during the Middle Ages, with all of its scientific and literary achievements. It must also be added that in China, as in all other countries, the humanistic component must struggle forcefully to make room for itself amid the domination of the natural and technological sciences. The utilitarian vision is clearly at the forefront. And in this regard it is easy to understand why a Taoist monk, when asked why men practice religion, replied, "They are doing business with the gods."
Translations can be found in China of some books that distance themselves somewhat from institutional Christianity. Some of these do so in their content, such as for example the books of Hans Küng. Others do so in defending religious pluralism, for example the books of John Hick or Paul Knitter. Also recently translated into Chinese are the "Introduction to Christianity" by Joseph Ratzinger and a book on moral theology by Karl-Heinz Peschke. In 1998, Zhuo Xingping published a book on the contemporary theology of Western Christianity. There is also a certain amount of documentation available, like that relating to a symposium on the efforts of Christianity within modern society, organized in Beijing in 2001 by the group Misereor. To my own surprise, I have also found some publications by the Austrian scholar and linguist Leo Leeb, which in the future might contribute in a penetrating way to the construction of intercultural dialogue. Curiosity and interest can be noticed everywhere in China. But one must not underestimate the fears that are displayed at the prospect of significantly widened horizons. In the future, there will probably be more need for patience than for polemics.
Hebei is the province that includes Beijing and the nearby town of Tianjin (Tientsin). There are eight official dioceses in the province of Hebei, four of which are located in the territory where the missions of the Jesuits were once based. But Hebei is also the province from which bad news has been coming for some time, as again recently – during the days of the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI – news came of the arrest of a bishop and a priest belonging to the clandestine Church, and of the confusion that followed. […]
I was able to visit two rather young bishops, both just over 40, in Xianxian and in Jiangxian, a diocese that now takes its name from the locality of Hengshui. These two bishops are striking above all for their youth and personal influence, but they also say that they have available to them a youthful clergy and many young religious sisters, describing their situation as exemplary.
The self-awareness that these Christians reveal is immense, but so is the missionary spirit that they manifest. Bishop Li Liangui of Xianxian said there are 70,000 Catholics out of 7 million. He works with about 100 priests and 260 sisters. There are 50 parishes in his diocese, 16 clinics, 3 hospitals, one day care center for children, one house for the aged, and one for disabled. There are about 40 seminarians in the minor seminary, and 15 others closer to ordination. Incidentally, he also affirmed that he and his confreres have learned much from the old Jesuits who have continued to assist the people in the more far-flung villages. Accompanied by him I was able to pay a brief visit to his predecessor, the 88-year-old bishop Liu Dinghan, a Jesuit. Since he's deaf, one may communicate with him only by writing, but that works smoothly.
According to the report of bishop Peter Feng Xinmao, there are 26,000 Catholics in Jiangxian or Hengshui, out of a million and a half inhabitants; 30 priests and 75 sisters work among them. The communities are large, and I visited two or three of them. One young parish priests looks after 40 communities and 7 localities that have a church or chapel. Another priest, who works in what is clearly an older district, cares for a parish with 20 communities, containing 15 churches. This other is aided in caring for his 1,500 faithful by a chaplain and by two older priests who are already retired. Most of these are rural communities, where the Church is growing. One little locality where the bishop was able to consecrate a small church at the end of May began three years ago with one old woman as the sole parishioner. On the day of the consecration there were 180 faithful, and during the celebration of the Mass the bishop baptized 20 adults.
In 1983, the official Chinese Church still gave the appearance of being closed off, not to mention frightening. One saw only elderly bishops and priests, and the faithful were similarly of an advanced age. The one link with the universal Church was the Tridentine Mass, which was recited in Latin. In the Latin missals, the line that mentions the pope in the Roman canon was blotted out.
But now, everywhere you go the holy Mass is celebrated in the mother tongue, on an altar turned toward the people. Where it appears in the canon, the pope's name is always said in a loud voice. Everywhere you go, you can see the portrait of the new pope, Benedict XVI.
The liturgical texts were prepared in Taiwan, and it wasn't difficult to send them to the continent. If one asks what the official date was of the introduction of the new liturgy, the reply is vague. It appears that no directive was given "from above," but that the change was made at the beginning of the 1990's, a little after 1992 or '93. From what I have gathered, this led to the creation, in Beijing and the rest of the province of Hebei, of liturgical communities that love to sing and pray in a loud voice. There is great participation from the faithful of all ages, but especially from the younger and the youngest generations, including the men. The people you meet manifest joy and trust, but also a strong sense of determination. The laity participate in their liturgical roles: the proclamation of the readings, the prayers of faithful, the offertory procession, and everything else that is of long-standing practice. In the community that I was able to visit, it was even normal for there to be pastoral councils. If all this wasn't just misleading, it is clearly evident that responsibilities are distributed equally between clergy and laity.
In the face of this situation, there arises the spontaneous question of what "the Roman Church" means in China. Outside the country, there has long been a widespread impression that the Catholic Church is divided in China. According to this image, there was the official Church, dominated politically by the Patriotic Association, with its bishops appointed by the Chinese government and exercising their office without the approval of the Holy See: this was called, in a reductionist and mistaken manner, "the patriotic Church." Next to this was a community not recognized by the government and thus strictly overseen and persecuted, with bishops appointed by the Holy See, without the government's recognition: this was called "the clandestine Church."
But we must above all modify another image that was spread together with this classification: in many cases the fact that the Church was clandestine did not mean that it did not possess public ecclesiastical buildings. In many places there are churches that one can enter publicly. One can also find cases in which the cathedral of a clandestine bishop is larger than that of the parallel official bishop. In any case, wherever there is not a place available for a church the Mass is frequently celebrated in private residences. The use of "domestic churches" is rooted even more deeply among the Protestants than among the Catholics. Someone from outside is not capable of discerning how this situation is being played out concretely in individual places, and so is led to misunderstand. But it can be said that the general situation has now changed, if the following considerations are kept in mind.
According to the statistics that have been made public, there are about 12 million Catholics in China. There are 74 official bishops and 46 clandestine ones; 2,710 priests, of whom 1,000 are clandestine and 1,710 belong to the official community; 5,200 religious sisters, 1,700 of them clandestine and 3,500 in the official community; in 2003, there were 800 seminarians in the clandestine Church and 580 in the official community; and finally, 800 novices in religious orders for each community. It must also be added that of the 74 official bishops only a dozen or so of them have not been recognized by Rome. So this is a satisfactory reality, but at the same time it raises a few problems.
While in the past there was a widespread impression that most of the bishops of the official community had later been reconciled, and thus had obtained recognition from Rome, now the situation is completely different. Candidates normally seek to obtain appointment by the Holy See before they are consecrated as bishops of the official community.
This is the case of the two young bishops that I visited in the province of Hebei. And the same thing happened in Shanghai for Joseph Xing Wenzhi, who was the designated successor of that city’s bishop, Aloysius Jin Luxian. And so it was for his vicar general, who was consecrated on June 28, 2005. With Rome's recognition of Jin Luxian's successor, it is likely that in the future there will be no successor named for the bishop of the parallel clandestine community of Shanghai, Joseph Fan Zhongliang, who so far has been recognized by Rome, but not by Beijing.
This is not the first case, in spite of what has been written in the official press, but it is certainly the most pertinent one in terms of Shanghai's importance for the country as a whole. Essentially the same result was reached with the consecration of the two bishops of Hebei, whom we mentioned earlier, and particularly in the case of the second, Peter Feng Xinmao, who was consecrated on January 6, 2004. On the day of his consecration, Feng insisted that the declaration of his nomination by Rome be read in public. Moreover, he requested that the three consecrating bishops be bishops recognized by Rome. What was thus put into place can serve as a model, and should be carried forward in the future with great sensitivity and patience.
The situation that we have described makes it evident that a new commingling of these two institutions is taking place in China. A few factors should be kept in mind.
The most serious problem is without a doubt the one faced by the bishops who operate clandestinely and by their faithful. Here the situation seems to vary. There are regions in which the local authorities decline to install their own bishops, so a bishop whose presence is not officially recognized finds himself with the tacit approval of the local authorities.
But more problematic are the regions where two parallel systems continue to exist, as before. The solution in these cases might be that Rome would decline to provide a successor for the branch that is held as unofficial from the government's point of view, given the fact that a new understanding has been or is being reached in the local Church. In this sense, there are already regions where it is no longer the practice to speak of a "clandestine Church."
On the other hand, it is not to be expected that the faithful will adapt everywhere and without reserve to these new situations, or that they will adhere promptly and without hesitation to a form of Church toward which they have harbored doubts until now, after long experience of oppression and persecution. Too many wounds have yet to be healed. On this point, Rome counts upon what the Church has undergone in other countries where its structures were subject to oppression. But the Holy See must also keep in mind that, at least since the struggle over investitures in the middle ages, a long history of relations between Church and state has been developed, which has extended into our time in different ways and which helps in finding solutions for a satisfying and realistic relationship between the parties.
We have already occasionally alluded to a problem which might find a solution on a purely practical level. This consists in the fact that the boundaries of the official dioceses often do not coincide with those of the past, which are still used to mark the dioceses of the unofficial Churches. There are objections on this point which are humanly understandable, but also hopes that might be taken into consideration on the political level.
In regard to the problems in relations between Rome and China, the two questions always mentioned are Taiwan and the appointment of bishops.
As for Taiwan, there have long been signs that discussions should begin and that the problem seems resolvable.
But the second problem appears to be more difficult, and is always posed in these terms: while the Chinese government considers the appointment of bishops an internal matter for China, the Holy See, above all for theological reasons, maintains that this is a question which must not be handled on a political level, but within the Church on a religious level. It has long seemed that the two positions coexist side by side, without any possibility of reconciliation. But recently it has appeared that new possibilities for a solution, at least pragmatically, are being opened.
These steps forward, which have become evident, certainly do not signify that it will soon be possible to overcome and resolve the split between Chinese culture and Western legal sensibilities, or the political structure that has dominated China for almost a century. This will take a long time.
In this encounter between two worlds, the importance that is assigned to some personalities, beyond any sort of theoretical consideration of the essence of the person, should not be overlooked. China's political leaders have great leverage, but the figures of the popes also have profound influence even in China. I myself was asked on several occasions whether the new pope will go to China.
On the last day of my visit I went to the place where the great Jesuits Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall von Bell, Ferdinand Verbiest, and others are buried to this day. We had been given a brochure in two languages. The place was located inside a great training center for the communist party, but the guide, who didn’t know our identity, pointed out to us during the tour two buildings which, in their underlying structures, go back to the old era of the Jesuits. She added that there are plans to restore them to their primitive form. These buildings will certainly not be given back to the Society of Jesus, but one can clearly see how history continues to operate. In spite of the contrasts and ambivalence that these impressions leave behind, what prevails at bottom is an optimistic conviction that in China, too, the sense of reality, the truth, concern for everything that is human, and freedom are leading toward a new path.
A link to the magazine of the Rome Jesuits in which this article appeared:
> La Civiltà Cattolica
The homily of Benedict XVI on October 23, with a passage concerning the Church in China:
> “With deep sadness we felt the lack...”
And the letter of the synod to the four Chinese bishops prevented from participating:
> “Most Desired Brothers in the Episcopacy...”
On October 25, cardinal secretary of state Angelo Sodano spoke out on relations between the Holy See and China – and in particular on the question of Taiwan – in responding to questions from journalists on the occasion of the inauguration of the new conference center of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, which is named after Jesuit Fr. Matteo Ricci, a missionary to China in the sixteenth century. His declarations, in a dispatch from "Asia News":
> The problem with Beijing is religious freedom, says cardinal Sodano
And the quick, negative reaction from the Chinese ministry for the foreign affairs:
> Beijing expects “facts” not “words” from the Vatican
Two excellent sources of information and analysis on the Catholic Church in China are the news agency "Asia News," directed by Fr. Bernardo Cervellera of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, and the Holy Spirit Study Centre of Hong Kong:
> Asia News
> Holy Spirit Study Centre
English translation by Matthew Sherry: > [email protected]
Go to the English home page of > www.chiesa.espressonline.it, to access the latest articles and links to other resources.
Sandro Magister’s e-mail address is [email protected]