Pope calls for reconciliation of Chinese Catholics
By Elisabeth Rosenthal - International Herald Tribute
ROME: In an extraordinary open letter directed to Chinese Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged the suffering experienced by Catholics under Communist rule but concluded that it was time to forgive past wrongs and for the underground and state-sponsored Catholic churches in China to reconcile.
Hoping for a renewal of relations between China and the Vatican, which were suspended in the 1950s, Benedict reassured the Chinese government that the Vatican offered no political challenge to its authority, while urging the state-sponsored Catholic church to acknowledge the Vatican's control on religious matters.
"The misunderstanding and incomprehension weighs heavily, serving neither the Chinese authorities nor the Catholic Church in China," said the letter, which was released Saturday.
It was the pope's long-awaited first official and explicit statement on China's estimated 12 million Catholics, the majority of whom worship in underground churches to avoid having to register with the government and swear loyalty to it.
Months in preparation, the 28-page letter was issued in multiple languages, including Chinese, along with an unusual "Explanatory Note" to highlight main points.
The pope praised China for "the splendor of its ancient civilization" and noted with approval that it had greater religious freedoms and decisive movement toward socioeconomic progress. He underlined that the Roman Catholic Church "does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State."
Gerolamo Fazzini, editor of Mondo e Missione, a magazine for the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, said: "This is a step forward because it states the Vatican position clearly and holds out a hand to civil authorities. It says the church and authorities can be allied in dialogue - that you can be good Chinese citizens and Catholics at the same time."
But the pope's message to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the government body that oversees China's state churches, was that no Catholic church should operate independently of the Vatican, and he said Catholics should seek to worship with priests who accepted the guidance of Rome.
Benedict revoked instructions issued by his predecessor, John Paul II, in 1988. Those gave priests and bishops in China "emergency powers" that allowed them to operate without communication with the Vatican and to modify Catholic practices for their own protection, for example, saying a condensed Mass, according to Bernardo Cervellera, editor of Asia News, a Catholic missionary news service based in Rome.
The letter included a reaffirmation of the Vatican's right to appoint bishops, a point of deep contention between Rome and the Chinese Patriotic Church. In 2006, the Chinese church angered the Vatican by appointing three new bishops without consultation.
The Chinese government offered no immediate reaction, and the Patriotic Church Association had been meeting in the past few days, probably to discuss the contents of the letter, Fazzini said.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the bishop of Hong Kong and a passionate advocate for the underground church on the mainland, issued a statement Saturday night.
"The voice of our bishops and priests in China is often prevented from reaching our leaders; now that the letter of the pope is in the hands of our leaders, our bishops and priests can thus refer to it directly as a common starting point for dialogue," it said.
Beginning in the 1950s, China expelled missionaries, closed churches, confiscated church property and imprisoned almost all clerics. Persecution continued until the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, beginning in the late 1970s, allowed worship to resume slowly - although within limits set by the government. Underground churches held fast in their loyalty to the pope, but their secret meetings have been violently dispersed by the police, and practitioners have been arrested.
Still, over the last 10 years, the practices of the official state churches and underground churches have converged to some extent, depending in part upon the tolerance of the local authorities. It is not unusual to find official "Patriotic" churches where the pope is openly revered, and that hang pictures of him near the altar. An increasing number also get money from Catholic charities abroad to pay for church-building, schools and hospitals.
"The first and by far most important aspect is that for the pope, the church in China is one - definitely one," Cervellera, of Asia News, said of the letter. "He stresses it is time to consider the church one church. To reconcile the bishops from the two churches and the faithful as well."
Others remained skeptical that the overture would improve relations between the Vatican and the Chinese.
"I doubt that this will help overcome the impasse with the Chinese authorities, because the letter says that it's up to China to recognize that the church should operate in China as it does in 173 countries, even places like Cuba, which is Communist, or Japan, which has strong nationalism - in all of which the pope nominates bishops," said a priest from Hong Kong, who asked not to be identified.
He and others noted that the reaction to the papal letter could be complex among Catholics in China, and some could even feel betrayed by the pope's message.
"I think that this will have strong repercussions, within the church," Fazzini, the magazine editor, said. "Imagine a priest who spent 30 years in jail and now you are told that you have to dialogue with people that have been nominated by the authorities. Asking them to reread history with charitable eyes, that won't be easy."
Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Hong Kong