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Vatican statement on China brings comfort and hope

HONG KONG (AsiaNews): Priests in China approached by AsiaNews all spoke with satisfaction about the statement released by the Vatican on November 20 commenting on the Congress of Catholic Representatives, scheduled from December 27 to 29, and the presence of an illicitly ordained bishop at two ordinations on November 30 and December 2 (Sunday Examiner, January 1).

Although the Vatican made no judgement on either issue, simply saying that the two matters are still being studied, it did say that it understands the pain of the Catholic people in China, as well as the pressure that is on the bishops and others over attending the congress.

Nevertheless, the statement from the Vatican represents the breaking of a silence on matters concerning religious freedom and is being interpreted as a call for the free choice of bishops and freedom of conscience.

The three priests, all from the official community, say that up until now, they had regarded the Vatican desire to dialogue with Beijing as making the situation regarding illicitly ordained bishops too flexible, as people regard them as a violation of their religious freedom.

The three priests were interviewed on Christmas Eve and all said that they hope that the bishops will have the courage to boycott the Congress of Catholic Representatives, because it is, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in his letter of 2007, incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

They also expressed the hope that Beijing will send out positive signs from the congress by not limiting the religious freedom of both the people who do and do not attend.

One priest, who calls himself Father Paul, from southern China, said that he welcomes the Vatican statement, even though it has come pretty late, but he hopes not too late.

He said that he believes the statement is late because it comes after the horse has bolted, as the sacred nature of the two ordinations has already been violated by an illicitly ordained bishop gatecrashing them.

“Prior to the two ordinations, the Holy See did not sound any signal demanding a postponement or cancellation of the two ordinations in case any illicitly ordained bishops may be present,” Father Paul says.

He admitted that he found it disappointing that the Vatican remained silent after the two ordinations, but its response of November 20 is welcome, even though it cannot change the situation, which happened at the decision of the Chinese authorities who always act according to their own established procedures.

He commented that currently, not only does China not have freedom of religion, it does not have freedom of worship either.

However, he does believe that the Vatican statement is timely regarding the congress, as it will show up the attitude towards the authority of the Holy See of those bishops who do actively participate in the congress.

He regards the statement as being a good start in clarifying what he described as the chaotic situation that exists at present, as well as easing the pain felt in the hearts of Catholic people in China.

Father Peter, from northern China, said that he believes that the statement from the Vatican reaffirms that the congress is contrary to Catholic faith and doctrine, which allows people to trust that Pope Benedict’s letter is still regarded as being valid by the Holy See.

He says that it is being read as a confirmation of the attitude of Pope Francis, which helps both the clergy and the people to witness to the direction of the faith and affirm the will of the faith.

While Father Thomas, from central China, lamented that the Vatican had not provided a Chinese translation of the statement, he thanked a priest who had provided an unofficial one.

While he says that he finds it comforting in so far as the Vatican was prepared to play a wait and see game over the Congress of Catholic Representatives, he added that he believes that Pope Francis is going to have to make a definitive judgement on the function of the congress in the near future.

But he added that it seems that Pope Francis is convinced that the Holy Spirit is with the Church, including the Church in China.

He says that it is apparent that the pope is as uncomfortable in waiting for positive signs from Beijing as the Catholic people of China are, which he believes may make them a bit more comfortable in trusting the Vatican in the dialogue process in the future.

He adds that the encouragement to the bishops, priests, sisters and lay people on the invitation list for the congress to make their own decision about attending or not reflects a great respect for their individual consciences.

“The last sentence of the statement reaffirms the attitude of the whole Catholic Church: the Church encourages unity, refuses divisions,” he says.

“Catholics in the Chinese community hope they can become active builders of an harmonious society,” he says, “but this can only be realised under the premise of Chinese government respect for freedom of conscience.”

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