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A decade on from pope’s letter to Chinese Catholics

May 27 this year marks the 10th anniversary of the letter Pope Benedict XVI penned to the Catholic people of China. Although commentators hold a wide variety of views on the impact of the letter, what is undeniable is that it has given the Church in China a clear direction and led it into a new era.
Starting with Christology and ecclesiology, the letter addressed the issue of the Church in China by pointing out that as the mystical body of Christ (#5, 6, 7), the Church cannot change its departmental organisation arbitrarily, simply for the sake of an immediate interest.
Any changes to some members of the body would result in changes to the entire body. Thus, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which Pope Benedict described as being incompatible with the mystical body of Christ, only remains an organisation outside the Church hierarchy.
Pope Benedict pointed out clearly that the Church in China has gradually returned to a normal situation and “considering in the first place some positive developments of the situation of the Church in China, and in the second place the increased opportunities and greater ease in communication, and finally the requests sent to Rome by various bishops and priests, I hereby revoke all the faculties previously granted in order to address particular pastoral necessities that emerged in truly difficult times” (#18).
At that time, many commentators were worried that the unofficial Church communities would be abandoned. However, 10 years have passed and they are still full of vigour. The pope’s letter has indeed enabled both the unofficial and official Church communities to connect more concretely with the universal Church.
However, the crucial point of the role of the papal letter lies in whether concerned parties inside and outside China can closely follow the guidelines the letter contains.
The most important documents of the Catholic Church of the 20th century come from Vatican II, but many people have attributed the same status to Pope Benedict’s letter over the past decade. However, as with Vatican II, it is disappointing that few people have read it.
Fortunately, Pope Francis, when talking about the Church in China several years ago, stressed that Pope Benedict’s letter is still valid and urged people to re-read it carefully.
Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, the former bishop of Hong Kong, and the current bishop, John Cardinal Tong Hon, have both worked to promote the letter. On 24 May 2009, the Holy See issued the Compendium to the letter and in November, Cardinal Zen wrote and published a 20,000 or so word commentary.
As one of the communities that make up the Chinese Church, we acknowledge the blessing that Pope Benedict bestowed through his detailed analysis of the Church in China and the directives he gave.
The letter invites Catholic people across the whole world to honour May 24 as an occasion to be united in prayer with the Church in China (#19), so let us respond constructively by offering our heartfelt concern and prayer to our brothers and sisters in the mainland on that day. SE