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The new pope and the Church in China


HONG KONG (SE): In welcoming Pope Francis to the Chair of Peter as the leader of the Catholic people of the world, a vicar general from the Hong Kong diocese, Father Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, called on people to pray for him, as he comes to leadership of the Church in extremely difficult times.

Speaking at a press conference held in the Diocese Centre in Caine Road on March 14, Father Yeung added that he must face the challenge of China at a time when relations between Church and state are at a particularly low ebb and seem to have gone backwards in the past few years.

However, he noted that the name of the new pope does have a particular meaning for the Church in Asia, as the great Jesuit missionary of the 16th century, St. Francis Xavier, devoted the greater part of his life to spreading the faith throughout the continent.

St. Francis Xavier died on Shangchuan Island within sight of the Chinese soil that he so yearned to set foot upon.

Father Yeung added that a relic of St. Francis Xavier is kept in Macau, where two schools are also named after him.

He explained that while the Jesuit missionary of the 16th century never achieved his long held ambition of setting foot in China, he did lay the foundation for later Jesuit missions, which put the Church on the map in China and became an integral part of building bridges with Europe in later years.

While Father Yeung noted that the Church remains open to further talks with Beijing, he said it does take two to tango and unless the Chinese authorities are prepared to come to the table, it is difficult to see things improving.

He likened dialogue to a bridge, which must be anchored at both ends, but added that the new broom in the Vatican has certainly extended the hand of friendship.

While Father Yeung maintains that Vatican arms are open, the March 15 response from Beijing has been described as nothing but a cold wind.

AsiaNews reported that an official statement from the People’s Republic of China reads more like a declaration of a cold war than a welcome.

“Congratulations, but he better be better and more practical than his predecessors,” the Rome-based news agency reported in summarising the response from China’s Foreign Ministry.

While Beijing has joined the international community in congratulating Cardinal Bergoglio SJ on becoming the new pope, it has reiterated its request to the Holy See to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and not use the excuse of religion to interfere in the internal affairs of China.

A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, said in a press release, “We hope that with the leadership of the new pope, the Vatican will adopt a practical and flexible attitude that will allow it to create the conditions for improving relations between China and the Vatican.”

He added, “The new pope must also cut the so-called diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, recognising the Chinese government as the sole legal representative of the whole of China and should not interfere, using the excuse of religion, in the internal affairs of the country.”

Commenting on the existence of two popes within the walls of the Vatican state, Father Yeung expressed the hope that Pope Francis would manage his relationship with the retired Pope Benedict XVI judiciously.

However, it seems that the new pope heralded his attitude in his initial greeting to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square on the night of his election, when he referred to the former pope as the Bishop Emeritus (of Rome) Benedict XVI, not Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as the official protocol prescribes.

Editorialising on the UCA News website, Hong Kong journalist Lucia Cheung marvels at seeing the election of Pope Francis and the new premier of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, acknowledged in the media in Hong Kong on the same day.

She notes that as a younger man, Xi spent time working in Shaanxi and later in Hebei, Zhejiang and Fujian, as well as in Shanghai, all strongholds of the Church, particularly the unofficial communities.

“However, unless there is a radical change on religious policy and on the freedom of the people in China, these expectations are all but unrealistic,” Cheung concludes.

Meanwhile, AsiaNews reports that Catholics in China are upbeat about the election of Pope Francis. It quotes a bishop in Xi’an as saying, “He is a great man… I believe he will bring a new vision to the universal Church, because he comes from another continent. I hope he can visit Asian countries.”

It also quotes a priest in China as delighting in the new pope’s choice of name, saying that he is sure that he has his fellow Jesuit St. Francis Xavier in mind, a sure sign of his profound interest in the Church in Asia.

The diocese of Hong Kong has set April 8 as the date for a Mass to officially welcome Pope Francis.

The celebrant will be the bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, who become the only Chinese cardinal ever to vote in a conclave while being resident on Chinese soil.


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