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Vatican walks a diplomatic tightrope

HONG KONG (SE): A talk given by the Vatican secretary of state, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, in the Italian town of Pordenone on August 27 was described by Francesco Sisci, from Renmin University in Beijing, as a hint to how much the Vatican is prepared to suffer in order to achieve peace and establish a more workable relationship with China.

Sisci, who was the primary author of a Lunar New Year greeting from Pope Francis to the people of China published in Hong Kong’s Asia Times on February 2 this year, says in the same publication on August 30 that in effect, the cardinal is drawing the diplomatic-political lines, which have been derived from the religious-prophetic indications given by Pope Francis.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong on March 31 this year, Sisci pointed out that in preparing the new year greeting, Pope Francis doggedly refused to talk about either politics or diplomatic relations, adding that to the best of his own knowledge neither the Vatican nor Beijing is interested in them in the context of their current dialogue.

This view was backed up by Yan Kejia, from the Institute of Religious Studies in Shanghai, when the Global Times quoted him on August 29 as saying that China is not eager to establish formal ties with the Vatican.

In his talk in Pordenone, Cardinal Parolin noted, “New hopes and good relations with China—including diplomatic ties, if God so wishes!—are neither an end in themselves nor a desire to reach some kind of worldly success.”

The Vatican diplomat added that the Sino-Vatican negotiations “are thought out and pursued—not without fear and trembling, because they involve the Church which belongs to God—I repeat, they are pursued only in the measure in which they are ordered toward the good of Chinese Catholics, to the good of the entire Chinese people and to the harmony of the whole society, in favour of world peace.”

Sisci notes that in saying this, Cardinal Parolin is carefully walking a tightrope between concerns in China about the west, as well as in the west about the rising power of the Middle Kingdom.

The Italian scholar in European history describes Cardinal Parolin’s mission as head of the Vatican negotiating team in confabs with Beijing as being one of world peace, as well as addressing the Church dream of creating workable relations with China, which has occupied its attention for 400 years since the days of Father Matteo Ricci.

Sisci notes that the cardinal has scored a few goals on both fronts, but is still kicking into the wind.

“This makes the effort extremely difficult, but apparently neither the pope nor Parolin want to shirk what they feel are their responsibilities to find ways to avoid wars and destruction,” Sisci comments.

During his lunchtime talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club, Sisci said that he believes Pope Francis has brought the Vatican to the dawn of a new geo-politics and what he demonstrated in wiping the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, off the media map when they were both in the United States of America (US) in September last year, is the tremendous soft power that he embodies.

It is this very soft power that Cardinal Parolin detailed in his talk at Pordenone in saying that Vatican relations should always be earmarked by justice, but even more so by mercy.

Sisci interprets this as meaning that in his balancing act, Cardinal Parolin is saying that the Holy See must be moved by a spirit of generosity and forgiveness, rather than simply responding to the popular fear that it is prepared to give away too much in its negotiations.

“Pope Francis, as his predecessors Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI before him, knows well the baggage of suffering, of misunderstandings, often of silent martyrdom which the Catholic community in China carries on its shoulders: it is the weight of history!” Cardinal Parolin said at Pordenone.

“But he also knows, along with external and internal difficulties, how alive is the yearning for full communion with the successor of Peter, how many advances have been made, how many efforts are made to witness to the love of God and the love of neighbour, especially to the people weakest and most in need, which is the synthesis of all Christianity,” he clarified.

The many advances that have been made and the many efforts to witness to the love of God hold the key to understanding the Vatican’s mission for peace.

Cardinal Parolin was clear in blaming countries that are too eager to jump the gun in taking up arms to solve standing issues, when diplomacy has not had the opportunity to run its course.

But the Vatican still has history to deal with, and the most promoted and widely held in China today is the Unequal Treaties that were made at the end of the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century, which are interpreted as solidifying a link between western exploitation and Christianity.

It was further aggravated when France usurped the right of protection of missionaries and Christians, but Cardinal Parolin pointed to a different history, which is embodied in then-Archbishop Celso Costantini, when he was appointed the apostolic delegate to China in 1922.

He set about changing the scenery and insisted, against much opposition, that the Holy See should forge its own diplomatic relations with China and caste off the French protection.

He then set about giving local Church structures a new, more Chinese face and by 1933 had increased Chinese leadership in the Church’s 121 mission districts from zero to 23.

Although he became a cardinal in 1953, in 1937 he refused such an honour insisting it go to Archbishop Paul Yu Pin, from what was then known as Nanking, instead.

In this sense, Cardinal Parolin said that not all the problems the Vatican is facing at present are entirely new, “As such problems are not completely unlike those positively dealt with 70 years ago. Cardinal Celso Costantini, therefore, remains a source of inspiration and a model of extreme actuality.”

The memory of the role Pope John Paul played in bringing down the Communist government in Poland is also still raw in China’s memory, but Cardinal Parolin pointed to the new broom in the Vatican and the more recent role that Pope Francis played in supporting Cuba, which had and still has a Communist government, in achieving relations with the US.

He then described the mission of the Vatican as pursuing “an authentic culture of encounter and harmony of all of society, that harmony which the Chinese spirit loves so much.”

Sisci commented at the Foreign Correspondents Club that China may be interested in promoting relations with the Holy See, but he does not believe that it feels any sense of urgency.

However, while the Vatican may feel an urgency in promoting better relations with China and world peace, it has also demonstrated a tremendous patience and ability to suffer the wait until the time is ripe.

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