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Clarifying the fate of the unofficial Church in China

ROME (AsiaNews): China’s president, Xi Jinping, will be in Italy from March 20 to 23, and rumours are already circulating of a possible meeting with Pope Francis. Should this be the case, it is important to clarify the fate of the unofficial Church and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA).
 
The Sino-Vatican provisional agreement and the lifting of the excommunication of seven illicitly ordained bishops seem to have led to the idea that now, the only way to live one’s faith in China is in the official Church and that the unofficial community must disappear.
 
This notion is also strengthened by the push towards reconciliation and unity requested by Pope Francis in his message to Chinese Catholics and to the universal Church, published a few days after the signing of the agreement.
 
Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis affirms that the phenomenon of a clandestine community “is not a normal part of the life of the Church,” but also says—again citing Pope Benedict—that “pastors and faithful have recourse to it only amid suffering, in the desire to maintain the integrity of their faith.”
 
In his message, Pope Francis asks all the faithful to “work towards reconciliation” and “ restore full communion among all Chinese Catholics.” He urges them to “now offer gestures of reconciliation and communion” to “overcome the divisions of the past.” 
 
He also asked the pastors to establish “ever more fruitful ... relations between the leaders of ecclesial communities and the civil authorities become more productive through frank dialogue and impartial listening, so as to overcome antagonism on both sides.”
 
The papal message, therefore, speaks of a process of reconciliation, but does not say that it must be achieved by eliminating the unofficial community. Moreover, it does not say that unofficial bishops and priests should be forced to join the Patriotic Association.
 
On the contrary, it is probable that in the provisional agreement—which unfortunately has not yet been published—membership of the CCPA is optional, not mandatory. This can be inferred from a note by Wang Meixiu, a professor from the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, who, commenting on the agreement for AsiaNews, said that the CCPA is “a civil organisation” and not an ecclesial association; and that “participation is voluntary and not imposed.”
 
In addition, Fernando Cardinal Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, told L’Osservatore Romano on February 3: “I hope, therefore, not to hear or read about local situations in which the Agreement is exploited to compel people to do what is not even required by Chinese law, such as joining the Patriotic Association.”
 
However, this is precisely what is happening. In Xinjian, Inner Mongolia, Henan, Zhejiang, Hubei, the Religious Affairs Office continues to demand and encourage priests and bishops to join the CCPA and its project of independence (from the Holy See). 
 
Even the incident in Xuanhua, Hebei province, where a priest, supported by the local government, accused Bishop Augustus Cui Tai of resisting the Sino-Vatican agreement and urged the police to arrest him, shows how the false patriotic and independent mentality is also being imposed on the clergy.
 
The Church in Hebei is no stranger to attempts at forcing members of the unofficial community to join the Patriotic Association. Yet, these unofficial bishops and priests are good citizens and support the development of the nation, as is the wish of Pope Francis. 
 
The only point of resistance is membership in the CCPA which, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, is “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.”
 
The amazing fact is that some bishops— among them those from whom Pope Francis lifted excommunication—proclaim that it is time to erase the unofficial community and join the CCPA. 
 
Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu of Mindong, who was in Beijing for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), was reported by Hong Kong’s Sing Tao Daily on March 3 as saying he did not mind that the faithful are being forced to join the official community, declaring that this is the only way for “the Church to be united.” 
 
The bishop, who is a vice president of the CCPA said those who refuse to join the official Church were acting in their personal interests. Another of the reconciled bishops, Bishop She Shiyin of Leshan, Sichuan province, also a vice-president of the Patriotic Association, said that the application of the restrictive, new religious regulations (in which young people under 18 are forbidden receive religious education and participating in Church functions, among other issues) does not create any problems for religious freedom.
 
Fortunately, there are also official bishops full of dignity. At the same meeting of the CPCPC, Bishop Peter Fang Jianping, vice president of the Council of Chinese Bishops, in an interview with a Hong Kong radio station, said that the official Church should adhere to the spirit of Pope Francis without “forcing the believers of the underground community to move to the officially recognised Church.”
 
When Xi Jinping is in Italy, given the possibility of meeting with the Francis, both could clarify some of these matters. 
 
Bernardo Cervellera

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