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The Church in China: A special report


A Catholic woman prays during Christmas Eve Mass at a church in Changzhi, Shanxi province, China, Dec. 24. CNS photo/Reuters

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Observers of the Catholic Church in China fear a further rupture in the relationship between the Holy See and the leadership of the Peoples Republic of China if the government-controlled Patriotic Catholic Church ordains a new bishop of the Jilin Diocese without Rome's approval.

The situation is fraught with anxiety for both Catholic missionaries in China and for Chinese Catholics in both the recognized Church and the underground Church because it would harm the movement towards uniting the two Chinese institutions and the ultimate goal of full communion between all Chinese Catholics and the universal Church.

The northeast Chinese see has been vacant since the July 2009 death of Bishop Damas Zhang Hanmin, a member of the Patriotic Catholic Church whose ordination as a bishop was legitimized by the Vatican.

In his Christmas Day "Urbi et Orbi," message, "to the City and the World," Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholics in China to be resilient in the face of the restrictions on their religious freedom placed on them by the Chinese government. In the wake of the November decision by the Chinese to ordain a new bishop of Chengde without Vatican approval, the Pope's exhortation was seen as a return volley.

The Chinese response came through an editorial in the "Global Times," an official English-language newspaper in China for the international community. The editorial reminded Rome of its pique over the Vatican State's status as the only European nation with full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and not with the Peoples Republic of China.

But, the main thrust of the editorial was the idea that although there are many religious Chinese of many faith traditions, China would not be free if those citizens followed orders from foreign power centers. The editorial went on to say that the Vatican ideal of religious identity was unrealistic and harmful. "Religious belief is a personal freedom. However, every person also has an identity bound by law, their citizenship."

"What the Vatican demands from China is power, it is not about the true core of Catholic belief," the editorial said. "Sooner or later, Vatican will have to adjust its China policy."

In his May 27, 2007 message to the Church in China, Pope Benedict XVI updated and clarified the relationship between the Holy See and the leadership in China with the intention of beginning a dialogue towards normalization.

One European scholar affiliated with Hong Kong University said in the interim between the 2007 letter and the unauthorized ordination, Rome and Beijing worked out a protocol by which the Patriotic Church would nominate candidates for ordination to bishop that the Vatican vets and then either approved or disapproved.

"This rapprochement between the Vatican and China has taken a big step backwards. It is a sad, sad event," said the scholar, who has studied the Church in China for more than 30 years and who requested that his name not be used to protect his ability to move in and out of China for his research.

"What happened recently in Chengde was the Chinese government showing the Vatican that despite the cooperative, it will not be dictated to," he said. At that ordination, many bishops and other clergy were transported to the ceremony by the government with a heavy sense of official pressure.

The European professor said despite the tensions, the Church remains resilient.

"The goal of the Communists in 1950 was to create a schism and to have a completely separate church. In the light of how things are, that plan is a complete failure," he said.

Of 45 bishops in China ordained without Rome's permission almost all have reached out to Rome for validation, he said. Despite all of the efforts of the Chinese, the Church in China still seeks its place in communion with the Universal Church.

The event in November came as the Chinese were complaining the Vatican is taking too long and with the country's number of empty bishoprics, the process needs to be faster, he said.

The name of the bishop had been submitted to Rome, but the Chinese simply grew impatient, he said. "I am a Catholic myself, so you understand that I am reluctant to criticize the Church, but in this case I believe the Church may have taken too long."

Given the delay, the Chinese took the opportunity to assert their own rights in the process, he said. In this way, the situation is similar to the tensions between the French kings and the popes, with the kings insisting on their right to control who became prelates in their realm.

"The difference is that in the case of France, the popes always approved the king's choice, and in China the popes do not always approve," he said.

This French practice continued into the 19th Century and can be seen working in the career of Boston's first bishop Jean Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus. Cheverus upon his return to France was named the Archbishop of Bordeaux and later elevated to cardinal at the insistence French King Louis Philippe. In fact, it was the monarch himself who invested Cheverus with his scarlet robes and placed the cardinal's hat upon his head at a Paris Mass observed by the papal nuncio.

Another scholar, G. Wright Doyle, the director of the Global China Center, based in Charlottesville, Va., said, "The Patriotic Church is fully out in the open with total freedom to do whatever you are allowed to do in China."

The clergy of the Patriotic Church would not feel oppressed, he said. "They have all been cleared in the government's vetting."

Doyle said the recognized Church is allowed to gather and worship, it is absolutely orthodox in its theology, practices and respect for tradition. "In this way, the situation is similar to the Church of England immediately after it broke from Rome."

The critical issue is whether or not one believes the role of the loyalty to the papacy is important, he said.

Among many in the underground Church there are hurt feelings and resentments, since they are the ones who were beaten, imprisoned and now they are being asked to accept that those who did not sacrifice in the name of loyalty to the papacy are treated as equals by the pope, he said.

"The relationship between the underground Church and the Patriotic Church, like most things in China is complicated," Doyle said. "Among the clergy, they often interact. As for the government, they certainly know where they are and who they are, but in the last year or two, they seemed to have loosened up their controls."

The director of the U.S. Chinese Catholic Bureau, Father Michel Marcil, S.J., said of the five legally recognized religions in the People's Republic of China: Islam, Buddhism, Daoism, protestant Christianity and Roman Catholicism, the Catholic Church is the only one to resist the full regimen of government regulation.

"This is because the Church as the successor to the Apostles cannot accept control by government," said Marcil, a native of Quebec, who taught at the Shanghai Regional Seminary during the 1989 to 1990 academic year. The bureau is located on the campus of Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., and is officially affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

After the Communist Revolution in 1949, the Church enjoyed relative freedom under the new government "until the country's leader Chairman Mao-Zedong launched 'The Great Leap Forward,' a campaign of internal communist revival.

"For eight years, no one went underground because there were few restrictions," the priest said. "Then, one night, a number of bishops, priests, nuns and other religious were arrested, and others decided to go underground." Many spent 15 to 20 years living their faith clandestinely.

Clerics absent from the life of the Church, either by imprisonment or self-withdrawal, were replaced by compliant priests and bishops. These events created the current bifurcation in the Church in China with an underground Church and an organization calling itself the Patriotic Catholic Church acting as the de jure Church, he said.

After the tumult of the Great Leap Forward, in 1961 Mao was secretly deposed by the party leadership, although he remained the titular head of party and state. In 1967, Mao regained full power leading a violent student revolt against the leadership dawning the period called the "Cultural Revolution." During the Cultural Revolution, which did not end until Mao's passing in 1976, the Church was constantly harassed and many churches were shuttered.

Like other missionary countries, the vast majority of clergy in China were members of religious orders, he said. Consistent with its concern over outside influences, the Chinese government does not allow religious orders, which operate with pontifical charters, to function as communities inside its borders.

"As a member of the Jesuits, I am free to come and go as I please as an individual, but if I were to work together with other Jesuits, then it would become a problem," he said.

Sister Janet Carroll, M.M., who preceded Father Marcil at the Chinese Catholic Bureau and is now the liaison to Catholic Chinese programs for the Maryknolls, said the vast majority of bishops ordained through the orchestration of the Chinese government are sincere clerics who are stepping up so that the bishops' sees are not filled by charlatans or political careerists.

The bishop created in November, Joseph Guo Jincai, is a good man, who was put into a very difficult position, she said. "These are people we know and respect. They are fine men, but they are now compromised."

The sister said that the bishop's ordination is valid because he was ordained by a valid bishop, but the chief objection for the Vatican is that he is now in-charge of a diocese without permission.

"What we need is prayer," said Sister Janet. "Soon after the ordination in November, I received an email from a young priest in Chinese, who told me: 'They have turned our Advent into Lent.'"

Sister Seng Xia Han, a Chinese nun from Liaoning Province studying at Boston College, said, in her experience, the members of the underground Church and the registered Church interact easily.

The nun, who converted to Catholicism in 1988 shortly after her graduation from high school, said it is common to have members of the two Churches worshiping at the same church, but at different Masses times.

Before she began her studies in September 2009, Sister Han said she became friends with an underground priest who heard her confessions and acted as a mentor to her, even though she is a member of diocesan order within the Patriotic Church.

The spiritual director of the Boston Chinese Catholic Community, Father Peter Shen said the Church in China in many ways is stronger now than ever before.

"In the past, there may have been more priests and bishops, but they were mostly foreign missionaries. Today, the Church in China has more bishops and priests who are native Chinese," he said.

"In China the percentage of Catholics who regularly attend Mass is something like 90 to 95 percent, which is much more than here in America," he said.

A native of China's Henan Province, Shen said there have been many positive changes in his lifetime.

"I was born in 1969 during the Cultural Revolution when the Church was very oppressed. Many churches were closed and many priests and bishops were sent to prison," he said. "In 1979, the Chinese government changed its policy on religious, and the churches were reopened and the priests and bishops were released."

Shen said the difficulty between the Vatican and the Chinese leadership needs to be resolved, but it does not affect the daily life of regular Chinese Catholics. But, there is a strong need for the Church in China to deepen its relationship with the universal Church.

"On the ground-level Catholics ask different questions," he said. "They want to know: 'Will I be free to attend Mass?' 'Will I be able to meet with a priest?' 'Will I have access to reconciliation and the other sacraments?'" In most cases, the answer to these questions is yes. "The churches are open every day."

When the priest visited China last fall, he said he was impressed by the vibrancy by religious faith in action there by Catholics.

"I saw choir practices, churches full of worshipers and adorations of the Eucharist," he said.

"China is a great place for evangelization because although there is more prosperity, there are so many people searching for the meaning of life," he said.

"Humans are physical animals, but we are also spiritual animals," Shen said. "They are like two wings of the same bird and you cannot fly with one wing."

There are now more rich people in China, but without God, they are lost, he said. "For the poor, life without God is full of despair."

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