CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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A decade on from Pope Benedict’s letter to Chinese Catholics


HONG KONG (SE): The letter, which has now become the text book for the Church in China penned by Pope Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics in 2007, is as important today as it was 10 years ago.
Speakers at a seminar held on May 7 in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary, said that it should be re-read as a source of wisdom in looking at what path the Church in China should follow.
Organised by the Justice and Peace Commission it came at a time when opinions held by leading Catholics in Hong Kong and Macau—bishops and laypeople alike—on how renewed links with the Church in China should be managed are considerably divergent.
While all agree there should be no compromise on principle or state control over the Church, some believe that a firm wall of resistance to any engagement with Beijing should be maintained and others seek to pursue discussion to at least resolve the issue of the appointment of bishops.
The intention of Pope Benedict’s letter was to provide "guidelines concerning the life of the Church and the task of evangelisation in China."
However, it received a hostile reception from the Chinese government and others in China largely due, its critics claim, to a lack of consultation.
Speakers at the seminar expressed the belief that the letter is one of the most important papal instructions to the Church in China available.
Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, the former bishop of Hong Kong, said it should be read seriously to get a close understand of its real message.
The pastoral letter deals with issues such as the willingness of the Vatican to dialogue with China over Church territorial jurisdictions, reconciliation within the Church in China, control over Church life by state agencies, the different circumstances of Chinese bishops and the  authority of the pope to appoint bishops.
It also contains guidelines for the pastoral activity of the Church, including the concelebration of Mass with clergy from the government-sanctioned official Church communities, and announces the end of special privileges previously granted to the unofficial Church community in the 1980s that allowed bishops to ordain their successors before obtaining Vatican approval.
These had been granted on the basis that the Church was under severe persecution at the time, something which Pope Benedict judged had changed sufficiently in its nature not to warrant the continuation of the special permission.
Anthony Lam Sui-ki, the executive secretary of the Holy Spirit Study Centre, said that rereading the letter has been the only open instruction that Pope Francis has given to the Church in China.
Cardinal Zen pointed out that he is disappointed that the effectiveness of the letter was partly lost due to mistakes in translation, which resulted in different interpretations coming from various Church people with vested interests in China.
Even after the Vatican corrected those mistakes a year later, Cardinal Zen said that in China a misleading message has seemingly been accepted that it is fine for the unofficial Church community to join the official, government registered community, which is controlled by the government through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Pope Benedict’s letter irritated Beijing, which demanded that the Vatican not publish it.
"A copy was sent to the Chinese bishops four days before and Beijing received it 10 days prior to it being released. But Beijing did not give approval to the Vatican to release the letter. A Vatican official told the Chinese officials that we are not asking for your approval. It was just courtesy to informm," Cardinal Zen told the gathering.
"It is obvious that up till now, the Chinese government still regards religion is something that belongs to it," the cardinal said.
Observers say that the letter was not received well by the Communist Party, because its stance on the state-run organisations like the National Congress for Catholic Representatives, the Patriotic Association and the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, which are all run by the party, and what it proposes is contrary to party policy.
The seminar was held at the same time that the Vatican and Beijing were hunkered down behind closed doors in their ongoing discussions.
A possible deal on the appointment of bishops, long sought by the Vatican, would involve Beijing accepting the more than 30 bishops from the unofficial communities that are not recognised by Beijing.
In exchange, the Holy See would do something to regularise the status of the seven bishops that the government has had ordained without the approval of the Holy See.


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