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Reading the pope’s message to the Catholics of China

Pope Francis issued his message to the Catholics of China and the universal Church shortly after the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops.  
He acknowledges “a certain confusion” amidst conflicting reports about the future of the Catholic communities in China. Some feel “doubt and perplexity”, others feel “abandoned by the Holy See and anxiously question the value of their sufferings endured out of fidelity to the Successor of Peter”, still others feel hopeful of “a more serene future for a fruitful witness to the faith in China” (1).
 
Through his message, Pope Francis wishes to reassure the Catholics of China of his pastoral care, his sincere admiration—which is the admiration of the entire Catholic Church—for the gift of their fidelity, for their “‘good witness’ (cf. 1 Timothy 6:13) to the gospel, even to the sacrifice of their own lives.”
 
He also wishes to share his discernment of a spiritual calling, an “ecclesial summons” for the Church to embark on a pilgrim journey. 
 
At a recent forum in Hong Kong, I listened with sadness as some of the faithful expressed deep disillusionment with Pope Francis’ decision to sign the agreement with China. They seemed to agree that his talk about world justice issues did not match his walk regarding the suffering Church in China.
 
Young voices were also represented at the forum. They saw the Umbrella Movement in 2014, the subsequent trials of students and activists, their heavy sentences and the disqualification of popularly elected legislators, as failures in the decades-long quest for political reforms. Even acts of resistance led by their peers that broke into violence did not change anything. They described it as a “deadening of the heart.”
 
Some resolved then to make as much money as possible, to give themselves options, presumably to emigrate or, failing that, they would earn, spend and enjoy. They greeted the Sino-Vatican agreement with indifference; as another instance of sell-out.
 
Hong Kong has played the role of a bridge between the Church in China and the universal Church ever since its beginning as a colony and a Procura in China (1841), supporting various missions. (See Louis Ha, History of the Catholic Mission in Hong Kong, 1841-1894 [Chinese translation]; Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Co., Ltd., 2014.)
 
Many residents in Hong Kong are (descendants of) political refugees who fled the tumults in Communist China. The tide has changed in recent years, as more and more capital and people from the mainland aggregate, causing local people to feel they are being pushed to the margins.
 
Hong Kong has experienced its own share of “doubt and perplexity,” especially since the reunification in 1997—a sense of being abandoned or betrayed as the economy tilts toward those who have. Inequality and polarisation grow, as genuine universal suffrage continues to elude the people of Hong Kong. 
 
Political rights and civil liberties guaranteed by the Basic Law under One country, Two systems have seen steady erosions. Meanwhile some view the merger with mainland infrastructure, finance and development initiatives with positive expectations. 
 
It is no surprise that popular amedia, as well as many Catholics in Hong Kong follow the Sino-Vatican dialogue with deep interest and angst. 
 
When news broke in December that the Holy See requested the ordinary bishops of Mindong (Guo Xijin), and Shantou (Zhuang Jianjian), to give way to previously illicit bishops (Zhan Xilu and Wang Bingzhang respectively), a friend asked if that was to humiliate the unofficial community.
 
We may be more used to seeing power used to belittle or crush. But we have a different model in Christ “who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
 
Father Luo Wen, a priest of the unofficial community of Mindong explained recently why Bishop Guo accepted the request: “Everyone refers to the underground Church as ‘The Faithful Church.’ What does this being ‘faithful’ mean? 
 
“Being faithful means fidelity to a superior authority, to the ecclesiastical tradition and to the representative of Christ. At the beginning we chose to follow the ‘underground’ route because the Holy See did not recognise the official bishops, so we too refused sacramental communion with them. 
 
“But today we also recognise the official bishops as our bishops, because it is an order of the pontiff: the reason for the original refusal is exactly the same as the reason for today’s recognition” (AsiaNews, 20 December 2018).
 
In a sense, what is asked of the unofficial community is akin to a crucifixion. When the Word became flesh, he also took upon himself our cross of suffering and injustice. But our salvation story does not end with crucifixion.
 
Quoting Pope Benedict’s 2007 Letter, Pope Francis addresses the Catholic Church in China as “a small flock present and active within the vastness of an immense people journeying through history.” This little flock, the Church, is a sign and sacrament of God’s presence, especially for those who walk in darkness.
 
 “For the Church, within and outside of China, this involves more than simply respecting human values. It is also a spiritual calling: to go out from herself to embrace ‘the joys and the hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted’ (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 1)”(2).
 
In China today, the “poor or afflicted” may be those who, though prosperous, have lost hope in the good both in themselves and in others. 
 
Note that this message is addressed not only to Catholics of China, but also to the Universal Church! The “ecclesial summons to become pilgrims along the paths of history” is to “the Church, within and outside of China” (2). 
 
It says, “Dear brothers and sisters of the universal Church, all of us are called to recognise as one of the signs of our times everything that is happening today in the life of the Church in China. We have an important duty: to accompany our brothers and sisters in China with fervent prayer and fraternal friendship. Indeed, they need to feel that in the journey that now lies ahead, they are not alone” (9).
 
Besides fervent prayer, we are to be watchful (recognising the signs of the times) and always remember the communion.
 
At every Eucharist, we drink and remember the blood of Christ, poured out willingly for the forgiveness of sins. “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14), so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). We too were lost and are found. That is the Good News.
 
The signs of the times can be disheartening; fearful. But we have help. “In every situation, may the Holy Spirit cause us to contemplate history in the light of the risen Jesus. In this way, the Church will not stand still, but constantly welcome the Lord’s surprises” (7).
 
What does it mean to contemplate history in the light of the risen Jesus?
 
Strong people, who control power and resources, have tried to make history by imposing their will upon the others. But since the Lord of history entered history (through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus), the powers that be, and even death, no longer have the last word. 
 
The risen Christ, who walks with us along the paths of history, has empowered us. We are a people who share in the death and resurrection of Christ. You and I—we do not need to be wise, wealthy or famous—are agents of change.
 
To contemplate history in the light of the risen Jesus means we have to empty ourselves, even of our sense of justice and “just deserts.” Then we can be creative and joyful; open to God’s surprises.
 
Pope Francis says in his message: “more than bureaucrats and functionaries, the Church needs passionate missionaries, enthusiastic about sharing true life” (7).
 
We recall Jesus’ summoning his first disciples. He said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch … Do not be afraid; from now on it is people you will be catching” (Luke 5: 4-10).
 
The water is deep. In China, after the signing of the agreement, the persecution of unofficial Churches continues; some official Church communities and clergy are not immune; the transmission of faith to young people is a challenge. The Sinicisation of religions, as it unfolds, means putting all religions on a leash.
 
Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.”   
 
It is tempting to give up, to part ways, to mind our own business. But remember how the gospel was sown among us not long ago when we were sinners. It is not enough that we personally are free, or awake.
 
Today young people are in jail. Teachers, scholars, pastors give powerful witness. We hear voices in the wilderness: the voice of community-builders, professionals, artists, the laity, workers, the unemployed … words and work of love, peace and integrity that seek “to arouse the conscience of the community.”
 
How are you and I called to be “passionate missionaries”? Perhaps there is no need to go to far-off places. But through everyday encounters as pilgrims with one another, where we live, where we work and where we play, we can bear witness.
 
Put out into the deep. Be fishers of men, repair the net! 
 
Cynthia Pon 

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