Vatican City (AsiaNews) The 22 Chinese priests who greeted Pope Benedict XVI with the enthusiasm typical of sport fanssinging and clapping their hands with a beathave already left for China. But yesterday, these rectors and spiritual fathers from some of the country's main seminars were front row during the Pope's first audience in the Paul VI Hall after his summer break.
AsiaNews met some of them right after the meeting it and asked them some of their impressions of Benedict XVI.
"It was a dream come true," said a priest from Xian. "I would never have believed that I was going to see the Pope so close up".
"I am moved," said a priest from Chengdu. "Many back home will envy us this unexpected gift".
"I am very happy. With this surprise trip we were able to express our total union with Peter's Holy See," a priest from Shenyang added.
They all agree that having the chance to greet the Pope was a surprise for all of them.
When the decision was made to travel to Germany and Italy, rediscovering Saint Benedict's spirituality and learning more about the latest approaches to spiritual and psychological training for use in Chinese seminaries was their first priority.
In Germany they attend a two-week programme offered by the Benedictine Abbey in St Ottilien (Bavaria). Here, they followed courses in spirituality, psychology, and vocational support.
"It was a unique opportunity to rediscover our priestly vocation," one of them said.
Because seminaries were shut down and many priests were thrown into prison during China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), there is a huge gap in the 50-to-60 age group, that is, among those who would have normally been today's leaders and who would have been the points of reference for younger clergymen. Given this gap, "in China today, priests are either very old, trained before the Second Vatican Council, or very young and inexperienced".
Last week, the group of Chinese priests came to Camaldoli Abbey, near Florence, where they were able to directly experience the life of the monks who live according to the Benedictine rule.
"By integrating prayer and work, focusing on the physical body and the spirit, on the individual and the community, Saint Benedict's rule is an excellent way of understanding how to provide an all-round training to our students in China," said another of the visiting priests.
Only the evening before the Pope's audience were they told that they would be able to greet him. Their tickets gave them access to the left front row which meant they would be able to shake hands with the Pontiff.
As the Pope made his way across Paul VI Hall greeting the crowd he stopped to exchange a few words with the Chinese priests. Then, during the audience, he greeted them "with special affection".
The priests gave the Pope a Chinese Bible which they had signed as well as a greeting car in Chinese characters.
The group included 11 spiritual fathers, 5 heads of seminary and six vice rectors, their age averaging between 40 and 50 with the youngest, 30-year-old, and the eldest, 74.
They are from major seminars in Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, Chengdu, Shenyang, Wuhan, Jilin, etc. and made the trip because their bishops decided to send them to Europe to upgrade their training.
Many observers are now speculating whether this trip was another step on the path to diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican.
In the last few months the ordination of two bishops in Xian and Shanghai have been approved by the Holy See and accepted by the government in Beijing.
However, "what happened yesterday was not a diplomatic move," a Vatican insider said in response to a question by AsiaNews. "It was simply an act of faith and spiritual affection for the Pope".