CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 10 November 2018

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Recently in Hong Kong there was a conference on The Catholic Church in China from 1900 to the Present. 

The speakers were well-versed in this particular history. Aspects covered included things like Sino-Vatican Relations, Catholic Missionaries and Their Contribution, and The Catholic Church and the Chinese Communist Party’s Religious Control.

As we came to the present, the conversation changed, as we saw a new era coming with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis. Will this change bring about a time for hope, or will things remain the same?

First, we must go back to an incident in 2012.  On July 7, Father Thaddeus Ma Daqin was ordained a bishop in Shanghai, with the approval of both the Chinese religious officials and the Holy See. 

The end of the ceremony didn’t go as the officials had planned.

To their surprise, after Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian and the first two licit consecrating bishops had laid hands, Bishop Ma quickly got up and shook hands with the three remaining bishops, thereby avoiding the participation of an illicit bishop in the rite. 

But Bishop Ma had one more surprise up his sleeve. 

At the close of the ceremony, after the usual greetings, words of thanks and pledge to serve his flock, the new bishop shocked everyone by declaring that, because of the pastoral demands of his office, he was renouncing his membership in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

With that news, loud applause filled the cathedral while the officials remained silent and dumbfounded in the front rows. Shortly after the ceremony, he was taken away to the Sheshan regional seminary for a retreat and is still off the scene.

The year 2013 has so far brought no clear signs of an end to the deep freeze between the Holy See and China.

Dark clouds continue to obscure the scenery, but the arrival on both sides of a new leadership could signal the beginning of a thaw.

While no new illicit ordinations have been performed in the past few months, other events seem to give reason to those at the Vatican pushing for stricter sanctions against all bishops, licit or illicit, who repeatedly act against Church law.

It was pointed out, for instance, that more than half-a-dozen of the bishops who accepted or performed illicit episcopal ordinations have been rewarded with an appointment in the China People’s Political Consultative Conference.

One bishop was even promoted to a representative to the National People’s Congress, the Chinese parliament.

Another source of concern has been priestly ordinations performed by illicit like Bishop Ma Yinglin on March 19, on the very same day that the inauguration of Pope Francis took place in the heart of the Vatican.

With dialogue between the Holy See and China having reached an impasse under Pope Benedict and Hu Jintao, the election of Pope Francis and the confirmation of Xi Jinping as new party chief and president of China has opened at least the possibility of rethinking the dialogue.

Xi keeps talking about his dream of a new China. Will this dream include more religious freedom? Time will tell.

From the start, Pope Benedict made dialogue with China and reconciliation within the China Church one of his greatest priorities.

His greatest achievement was indeed his pastoral letter of 2007 to Chinese Catholics, the only letter he addressed to Catholics of any specific country. 

He responded to long-standing demands of Chinese Catholics for unambiguous instructions on a number of key issues related to their faith life.

Additionally, in that same year, Pope Benedict established a commission, made up of experts and missionaries, to deal with important issues concerning the China Church.

He even inaugurated a World Day of Prayer for the Church in China.

During his eight-year pontificate, Pope Benedict sought the advice of clerics and other experts, but unfortunately he received conflicting guidance.

One cannot but wonder why, after five years of smooth dealings, relations between Beijing and Rome plunged to a new low with a wave of episcopal ordinations without papal mandate.

What led to the initial confrontation about the ordination of Guo Jincai in Chengde? Was it because the hawks in Beijing had regained the upper hand? Or was it in Rome? Or maybe both places? Or again, was it an attempt on either side to see who would blink first and submit to the other party’s demands?

The Chengde incident erased the gains of the previous five years and robbed Pope Benedict of any chance of reaching a satisfactory modus vivendi.

The door to a possible conciliation had been shut.

Without compromising the integrity of the Catholic faith and the China Church, Pope Benedict could not then condone Chinese authorities who appointed unacceptable bishops, pressured other bishops to participate in illicit ordination, or detained those who insisted on maintaining their ties with the Holy See.

His pronouncement of excommunication sentences drew a line in the sand that he would not cross. 

At the start of his pontificate, Pope Benedict pledged that like his namesake, Pope Benedict XV, he would dedicate himself to “the service of reconciliation and harmony.”

As much as his responsibility as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith required him to be a strict enforcer of Church dogma, his new role as pope called him to become a conciliator. One can imagine the pain he must have felt when he felt when obliged to levy the sentences of excommunication.

The Chinese authorities accused his administration of being staffed with hard-liners who did not understand China. No doubt Pope Benedict knew that Kangxi had directed similar accusations against his namesake.

Because of the complexity of the canon law regarding these excommunications, an important question still lingers regarding bishops who repeatedly took part in ordinations the pope had not approve.

Has the alleged excommunication been incurred or not? More than anyone, the Christians in the official and the unofficial Church, who do not necessarily grasp the nuances of declared and undeclared censures, deserve an answer.

Now with a new pope, a meaningful dialogue could be possible by adopting an approach that would put the onus of the decision and appointment of new bishops squarely on the local Church.

Such governance by the local Church would considerably deflate allegations of papal interference in Chinese internal affairs. 

Certainly, the pope would still need to be notified, but his approval should not pose problems as long as the local Church remains united with the universal Church. 

At the same time, an open channel of communication between China and the Vatican, as suggested by Fernando Cardinal Filoni last October, would allow undue interference in Church affairs by organs of the state, both at the national and local levels, as well as cases of abuse and outright persecutions, to be addressed. 

History has shown that the local Church cannot properly fulfill her vocation to serve a country’s people and society when the papacy tries to arbitrarily impose its ways or when it becomes subservient to and dependent on a type of civil government.

This is why finding the right compromise for the nomination of Chinese bishops is extremely important, because without it, the letter of Pope Benedict will never fully reach its intent of bringing reconciliation and unity within the Chinese Church.

In the meantime, as Bishop Jin confided a few months before his death, the task for most bishops in China remains an arduous one, “trying to navigate a small crevice between two giant mountains: The Vatican and Beijing” (Excerpts of speaker, Jean Paul Wiest).

In May, Pope Francis issued his first appeal directed to Catholics in China, long the source of concern for his predecessor.

He urged special prayers for China’s faithful people that they may “live their daily lives in service to their country and their fellow citizens as a way consistent with the faith they profess.”

 

Pope Francis would love to resurrect a dialogue with China.

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