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Vatican confirms hushed meeting in Beijing

VATICAN (SE): “It is part of a process aimed at normalisation of relations,” the Vatican secretary of state, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, told the media at the Vatican on October 29, confirming that a delegation from the Holy See had met with government representatives in Beijing from October 11 to 16.

While he would not speculate as to where the meeting may lead, he did say, “The sheer fact that we are able to talk about it is significant,” the Vatican Information Service reported.

Brushing up his best diplomatic language, the cardinal added that he believes that the fact that something is underway is extremely positive.

Cardinal Parolin’s announcement is the first official confirmation that the meeting, which has been widely published, did take place. While the fact of the meeting taking place was never meant to be a secret, the content of discussions and the agenda have been kept confidential.

Cardinal Parolin’s words are also confirmation of speculation that the outcome of the meeting is satisfactory, which reflects the up and down history of Holy See-Beijing contact.

A period in the later years of the first decade of the new millennium showed signs that progress was being made. The Chinese government refrained from forcing illicit ordinations of bishops and attempts to break the deadlock seemed to be leading towards some acceptable solution.

A great gift to the Catholic people of China came with a letter penned by Pope Benedict XVI clearly laying out the understanding of the Catholic Church on the Chinese question.

Pope Benedict wrote, “An accord can be reached with the government so as to resolve certain questions regarding the choice of candidates for the episcopate.” 

However, he added, “The solution cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities.”

In the two years following the publication of the letter, Cardinal Parolin, in his position as deputy at the secretariat of state, or the Holy See foreign affairs department, led delegations to China on two occasions and also met with Chinese officials in Rome.

In October 2010, the then-bishop of Hong Kong, Shanghai-born Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, was invited to visit his homeland for the first time since he became a bishop in 1995.

Although he had been able to meet with old friends, both bishops and others, while he was in China, there were later attempts to manipulate the purpose of his trip and misrepresent the facts of his China visit after he returned to Hong Kong.

However, in 2010 things came unstuck when the Vatican changed the personnel on its delegation team and a meeting of the newly formed Commission on China issued a statement saying that bishops in China should not have any truck with meetings organised by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the government body in charge of Catholic Church affairs.

Some members of the commission said later that they were not particularly in favour of making such a statement, but added that they do not remember it being intended as a big issue.

But in subsequent years, between November 2011 and July 2012, a series of illicit ordinations of bishops occurred and the Holy See, for the first time, declared that two of the newly-ordained had incurred automatic excommunication.

The time also saw a series of priests and Church personnel, both from Hong Kong and other countries, having their China visas cancelled or being refused visas when they applied to travel to China.

However, the slippery-slide relations improved after the hiatus and patient preparation and dialogue culminated in somewhat of a repair in communication.

The late spiritual guru from Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan, Father Bill Johnston sj, said in 2004 that who appoints bishops may not be the fundamental problem and that he believed that legal issues and the Church would always be problematic in Asia.

He said that he believed that the way forward lies in dialogue with cultures, especially the Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu and Islamic cultural realities, as well as Communism.

He added that doctrine is a difficult meeting point when there is fundamental disagreement and cited the 1986 Assisi Peace Meeting, which concentrated on love of values, as maybe being a good model.

However, Cardinal Parolin’s insistence that being engaged in dialogue is a positive beginning, does hold signs of hope.


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