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Catholics in China looking for new light

Look to shepherds for guidance on the agreement of the Holy See
When the Holy See signed its agreement with Beijing last September, Pope Francis said in his letter to the Catholic faithful in China that he understood their disappointment. Indeed, since then the Chinese faithful have been looking to their shepherds—the bishops and priests—for guidance. 
Surprisingly, however, some shepherds have, themselves, expressed in strong words their own personal disappointment and disagreement. 
Some even spoke of betrayal of the Church in China by the Holy See. A shepherd who criticises the decision of the pope using such language may seriously upset the conscience of the faithful. Instead of being a minister of unity he might even cause division. 
I heard echoes of this when I was recently in China, Taiwan, as well as in Hong Kong. Some concerned people suffer and are lost because of statements made by shepherds. 
The media eagerly publish these kinds of critical headlines causing more confusion and uncertainty.
Nowadays all Chinese Catholic faithful urgently seek clarification and enlightenment. Chinese bishops understand this very well. Some of them offer new signals of hope. One bishop invited his clergy for a three-day meeting to share and exchange background information on the new hope but also on the challenge created by the agreement for the future. Another bishop (or several bishops?) considered offering guidance through a pastoral letter. 
Elsewhere, faithful have already met to listen to different views of the clergy on the agreement between the Vatican and Beijing. They engaged in frank fraternal exchange, seeking understanding and unity. 
The local Churches in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are like the three Magi at Christmas searching the sky to find the Star of Bethlehem that may shed new light and guide them towards peace and unity around the newborn Jesus. The Star of Bethlehem brings signs of hope to the confused community of Catholic Chinese faithful.
Catholics have reason to celebrate the faithfulness of the Catholic Church in China.
In fact, Chinese Catholic may have expected too much of the agreement between the Holy See and Beijing. As soon as they heard that the pope planned to “sign an agreement with Beijing” they dreamed that this would be the document that would finally clarify the 60-year old confusion caused by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) that aims to establish an “independent Chinese Catholic Church in China.”  
That dream is not realistic because the agreement is very limited. It is only provisional (to be evaluated after two years) and very limited in its content. It does not even mention the CCPA, which the pope must also have hoped to clarify. It also does not mention diplomatic relations, which must have been the hope of the Chinese government. 
Neither the Holy See nor the Chinese government obtained everything they wanted. Much more time is needed to tackle these problems.
We now realise that we Catholics have in the past focused our concern and prayers too much on the internal division of the Church in China without realising that this division is only caused by politics—to cooperate or not to cooperate with the Communist government—not by differences in faith. 
We failed to celebrate the fact that, in spite of this difference of opinion on a political matter, the Church in China—both the official and unofficial communities—has always remained united in faith and in its will to remain in unity with the pope and the universal Church. 
In the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the Holy See approved more than 30 illicitly ordained bishops—nominated by the government without the approval of the pope. Rome knew very well that they were one with the pope even though they functioned as bishops in the official Church. China’s civil authorities observed this too and let it happen. 
The Chinese government has now drawn its conclusion and agreed to recognise the pope as head of the Church, which they never did before. The pope is now allowed to appoint bishops in China. Moreover, after the agreement and for the first time in 60 years, all bishops in China are now united with the Holy See. 
All this makes the provisional agreement historic and good for the Church in China, even though it remains limited. The Church has reason to celebrate and sing alleluia rather than to criticise it. 
Yet, while we celebrate this event we will also take our worries seriously and that’s when Pope Francis comes in with his letter and his challenge. 
He kindly invites all Catholics to follow him as he dialogues with China. Avoid all confrontation because dialogue is the only way to create hope. But we must also prepare to confront more hard challenges in the future before we reach our final goal which is to obtain legal citizenship for the Catholic faith in the People’s Republic of China. It may take a long pilgrimage in faith—a Long March—before we reach that.
Our primary concern now is the bishops conference. We hope that one episcopal conference will soon guide the Church in China where all bishops are members—those of the official and those of the unofficial communities. 
Will this happen smoothly? Can it happen soon? We do not know. 
It may take more patience and courage for the whole community of faithful to cross that first hurdle. We must prepare for that, mentally and spiritually.
But as we searched the skies this Christmas to find the Star of Bethlehem, one new light can help us understand what some of us had perhaps not realised before, namely: it was a mistake to think that communism in China never changes its policy on religion. 
Once upon a time, during the Cultural Revolution, an attempt was made to destroy; to totally eradicate religion. That failed and, in 1982, freedom of religious belief was reintroduced into the Constitution of China. 
During a speech at the Chinese People’s Political Consultation Congress in 1985, Zhao Fusan even officially proclaimed, “We should no more say that religion is opium of the people. That was a mistake!” 
What a change! 
In 1988 Li Peng even welcomed Billy Graham, the famous Protestant preacher to preach in China saying, “Religion has its own place in Chinese society.” 
The official Document 19 clarified that, in the understanding of the Communist Party, religion would disappear by itself. But today, 30 years on, that has not happened. It appears that religion is even spreading and expanding in China instead of disappearing. 
It is in this context that the government of China now, for the first time in history, signed this limited, yet very historic document which recognises the pope as chief shepherd of the Church and allows him to appoint bishops. Indeed, a remarkable change! One may not deny this. Such a change creates new light!
The tunnel ahead for the Catholic Church in China may be dark and long but at least there is light at the end and with Pope Francis walking ahead there is hope. Imagine us walking in that dark tunnel, if we all walk together, what a difference, what progress that will be! Indeed, the agreement has created a new situation.
Jeroom Heyndrickx CICM