China: Situation  of the Catholic Church

Source: FSSPX News


On September 8, 2005, the press office of the Holy See published the list of  members appointed by pope Benedict XVI and invited to the 11th Ordinary General Assembly of the Bishops’ Synod. As well as the bishops sent by the episcopal conferences, the pope may personally invite bishops, cardinals, Catholic observers-experts either clerics or lay people, and members of other Christian denominations. In the list published, of the 34 bishops invited, there were four bishops from the People’s Republic of China. Two bishops from the so-called "official" Church – the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics attached to the Chinese government – Bp Antonio Li Duan of Xi’an and Bp Aloysius Jin Luxian, of Shangai; and two bishops from the "underground" Church faithful to Rome, Bishop Giuseppe Wei Jingyi, of Qiqihar and Bp Lucas Li Jingfeng of Fengxiang. The latter managed to obtain recognition from the government in 2004, without belonging to the Patriotic Association. It was the first time the Vatican had invited bishops from the underground Church to Rome. In 1998, John Paul II invited two bishops from the "Patriotic Church" to the Synod on Asia.

The arrival at the Vatican of these four bishops would have thus reunited the two Churches of the Chinese continent. “This clearly demonstrates that the pope attaches a great importance to China and that the Chinese Churches hold an important place in the world", Mgr. Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop of Hong-Kong, .

On September 6, Mgr Lucas Li Jingfeng, bishop of Fengxiang, said that he had received the pope’s invitation in mid-August. "None of us will be able to go, if the government highlights the fact that diplomatic relations still do not exist between the Holy See and Peking". Mgr. Anthony Li Duan, archbishop of Xian, aged 78, confided that a tumor prevented him from getting up and that traveling was out of the question for him."

On October 2, the day before the opening of the Synod, Mgr Claudio Maria Celli, secretary of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, confirmed the wish of the Holy See to establish normal relations with the People’s Republic of China. "Our goal is not merely to establish diplomatic relations. […] Indeed, it is useless to have a nuncio in Beijing if he cannot take part in the life of the Church". The archbishop, aged 64, who has been receiving many Chinese guests discreetly in Rome since 1982, pointed out that in spite of the absence of the four bishops from the Synod: "We may say today that a constructive dialogue with China has been started, insofar as it began several months ago." Indeed, the diplomats of the Holy See had been preparing for the bishops’ visit with the Chinese embassy in Italy for a year.

For his part, Mgr Nikola Eterovic, General Secretary of the Synod, explained that “the pope, in making these nominations, wanted to  solidify the communion which already exists between the Holy See and the Catholic Church in China" as well as to show "his respect for the Chinese people". The former diplomat added that the People’s Republic of China "was the only country whose bishops would be absent." Because Vietnam, whose Communist government does not have an ambassador to the Holy See, authorized two bishops to take part in the Synod.

The four chairs of the Chinese bishops invited by Benedict XVI remained empty for the duration of the Synod. On October 10, during the 11th General Congregation of the Synod, Mgr Bosco Lin Chi-nan, bishop of Tainan in Taiwan, spoke about the lack of religious liberty and the division of the Church in China, asking the Fathers of the Synod to keep the four Chinese bishops absent from the Synod, in their prayers.

On October 12, Mgr Pierre Zhang Bairen, bishop of the underground Church of the diocese of Hanyang, died at the age of 91. His attachment to the Holy See had earned him 24 years of prison or hard labor since 1955. After a campaign of intimidation of the population and clergy in the province of Hubei, the representatives of the Bureau for local religious affairs, decided  to remove the interdiction to have public funeral in an attempt to save appearances in the face of international public opinion, according to the press agency Asia News. The governor of the province nevertheless maintained the ban on using the title bishop and only allowed the use of the words "priest" or "elderly prelate". However during the ceremony a banner carried the words "Mgr Pierre Zhang Bairen, non official bishop of the diocese of Hanyang".

The ceremony took place on October 15 in Zhagjiatai, native village of the deceased bishop, between 9:00 am and 4:00 pm in front of  7,000 faithful from both the "underground" and the "official" Churches. Mass was presided over by Father Chen, the eldest of the four priests present from the diocese of Hanyang. Among the 15 priests, who concelebrated, some were members of the official Church, who had become priests thanks to Mgr Zhang. In conformity with the local law, the body of Mgr Zhang was cremated, and the ashes of the bishop placed beneath the altar of the church of Zhangjiatai.

On October 12, at the end of the 15th congregation  of the Synod, the bishop of Hong Kong, Mgr Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun declared that "in actual fact, there is only one Church in China, for both of them, though apparently distinct, want to be united to the pope." He stated that, actually, a great number of bishops of the official Church have been recognized by the Vatican, especially during these past years, adding that the bishops affiliated to the Patriotic Association of the Catholics of China, who were not approved by the pope, were not accepted by the clergy and the faithful. He expressed the wish "that this state of affairs and this ecclesial attitude may prompt the Chinese government to normalize the situation, in spite of opposition, for motives of personal interest, on the part of the "conservatives" of the Patriotic Church." Mgr Joseph Zen Ze-kiun concluded by saying that "the Eucharist well celebrated will unquestionably speed up the coming of true religious liberty in China." For, "the pope’s invitation to the four Chinese bishops to the Synod was a good opportunity, which was ruined by Beijing".

The Jesuit Father Benoît Vermander, in an article published in the Italian Jesuit review La Civiltà cattolica on March 6, 2004, and entitled "Is there a religious awakening in China?", said that about two thirds of the 79 bishops of the Chinese "Patriotic Association" were recognized by the Holy See. Thus, Joseph Xing Wenshi, Chinese priest of the official Church, who was consecrated auxiliary bishop of Shanghai in June last, publicly stated that the pope had accepted his appointment. In La Civiltà cattolica of October 15 last, the Jesuit Hans Waldenfels, in an article entitled "China is opening up", affirmed that from now on "before being consecrated bishops in the official Church, the candidates were seeking recognition from the Holy See". Since the 1990’s the Chinese Patriotic Church has been celebrating Mass "with all the rites we know here" (i.e. the Novus Ordo Mass, Ed.), suppressing "all distinction with the liturgy which is celebrated clandestinely", added the German Father, who has visited China several times. If the Patriotic Church formerly gave "the impression of being closed, not to say frightened, (…) today, the pope’s name is always pronounced in a loud voice during the canon", and "wherever you go, you see the portrait of the new pope". He added that "there are areas where you have free access to the underground churches", noting that the ‘the cathedral’ of an ‘underground’ bishop is sometimes larger than that of ‘the official bishop’". However, the Jesuit Father stresses the antagonism which exists between the two points of view: "the Chinese government considers the appointment of bishops as a purely internal matter for China", whereas Rome, "for reasons which are mainly theological", sees it as a religious question proper to the Church".

On October 2005, on the feast of Saint Luke, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State of the Holy See, read out a letter, dated October 6 and written in Latin by Mgr Luke Li Jingfeng, during the 19th General Congregation of the Synod. The bishop expressed his own regret and that of his confreres, at being unable to be with the 244 Fathers of the Synod, together with their wish to see diplomatic relationships re-established between the Holy See and China. Benedict XVI made it known that he would write an answer in his own hand to the Chinese bishops. The press attachés of the Synod indicated that both these letters would be made public at the same time.

On October 22, the Fathers of the Synod addressed a letter in Latin to their "most dear brethren in the episcopacy" whose absence from the synod "caused a deep disappointment to their soul". They continued, addressing the Chinese bishops :" We would have been pleased to meet you and to hear from your own mouth the story of your ecclesial experience, wellspring both of sufferings and of fruits". Hoping that "we may soon find ways to make full communion still more visible", the Fathers of the Synod assured their confreres of "the prayer of the whole Church" for their intentions. The "letter to the Chinese bishops members of the 11th ordinary general assembly absent from the room of the synod" carried the signature of Mgr Nikola Eterovic, General Secretary of the Synod, and of the Cardinals Francis Arinze, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Juan Sandoval Iniguez, archbishop of Guadalajara (Mexico) and Telesphore Placidus Toppo, archbishop of Ranchi (India), all three delegated presidents.

On Sunday October 23, Benedict XVI, "in the name of all the bishops (…)" addressed "fraternal greetings to the bishops of the Church in China" during the closing Mass of the Synod. "The suffering of the communities entrusted to their pastoral care is in our hearts; it will not remain fruitless because it represents a participation in the Paschal Mystery, to the glory of God".