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Pope Francis faces tough road to dialogue with China

TAIPEI (SE): St. Francis of Assisi, from whom Pope Francis seeks the inspiration for his papacy, ran into brick walls in trying to enter into dialogue with Islam. He sent five brothers to Morocco in 1212, but they were murdered.

He tried to go himself, but poor health turned him back. He was also blocked by discord within his own ranks.

Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, writing from the Verbiest Institute in Taipei, Taiwan, predicts that Pope Francis will also face obstacles in the long haul challenge of opening a dialogue with China.

However, Father Heyndrickx notes that he has a long history of inspiration to fall back on in his overtures to the Middle Kingdom.

He points out that in 1964, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical on dialogue, Ecclesiam Suam, and he walked that path with China, at a time that was more critical than it is today, as the Cultural Revolution was just beginning.

In 1970, Father Heyndrickx notes that the same pope visited the Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome where he pleaded for China to be accepted into the United Nations. On July 11, Beijing released Maryknoll Bishop James Walsh, who had been behind bars for 15 years.

“In the same year, Pope Paul visited Asia and Australia, but he wanted to send a positive message to China as well,” Father Heyndrickx claims.

He says that the Vatican in all probability knew that the president of the United States of America, Richard Nixon, would open an embassy in Beijing in the following year, and Pope Paul sent his nuncio in Taipei to Ecuador, without replacing him.

“This was meant as a positive gesture towards China,” Father Heyndrickx explains.

The pope was also planning a stopover in Hong Kong, as yet another positive gesture, but in Taiwan, both Church and civic authorities put pressure on him to go to Taipei instead.

Although he stuck to his original plan, Pope Paul did bow to pressure and appointed Bishop Edward Cassidy as internuncio to Taiwan, however, Taipei media still continued to criticise his Hong Kong visit.

Father Heyndrickx recalls that pro-China media in the then-British colony remained silent about the papal visit, whereas the pro-Taiwan media was sharply critical.

The Belgium Scheut priest, as Father Heyndrickx’ congregation is commonly known, surmises that pressure may also have come from the then-colonial power and prevailed upon the pope to drop his plan to include a greeting to China in his Mass at the Happy Valley Stadium.

In the event, he notes that all he did say was, “… and I greet all the Chinese people wherever they may be…,” although Father Heyndrickx claims he had wanted to say more.

Although Bishop Cassidy did present his credentials in Taipei, his stay was a short one and in 1972, the Australian diplomat was replaced by a temporary observer at the Vatican embassy.

However, at the time expectations were high, and Father Heyndrickx notes that all the talk at the Vatican embassy in Taipei at the reception to mark the ninth anniversary of Pope Paul’s pontificate was, “Next year in Beijing.”

However, those receptions are still taking place in Taipei and the current Vatican diplomatic representative is still a chargé d’affaires ad interim (for the time being).

Father Heyndrickx notes that in 1958 Father Dong Guangqing was ordained a bishop in Wuhan without papal approval. He points out that Pope Pius XII condemned the ordination and referred to the prescribed excommunication, but did not promulgate it.

Pope John Paul II also refrained from promulgating excommunication in 2000, when five bishops were illegally ordained in the same year as the Church was celebrating the canonisation of the Chinese Martyrs.

Father Heyndrickx refers to these gestures as positive outreaches from the Holy See towards China in what he calls a search for dialogue. However, he says that the response from Beijing was disappointing.

He notes that Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul also followed the same path in their approach to China.

He adds that this has bequeathed to Pope Francis a history which Father Heyndrickx says carries a message both for the new leaders in Beijing, as well as the Church in the Vatican.

Father Heyndrickx concludes, “Pope Francis may experience also that dialogue with China will not bring quick success and he too may find out that there are different opinions in the Church on entering into dialogue or not.”

Nevertheless, he says it is in the spirit of St. Francis to persevere in seeking dialogue, reconciliation and unity. “In fact that’s where we all meet with what Christ preaches in the gospel,” he reflects.

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