The Synod on the Eucharist has come to an end without the attendance of any of the 4 Chinese bishops personally invited to take part in it by the Pope. Until the end, the Vatican had hoped that something would happen. And the invited bishops had hoped so too: especially, Monsignor Luke Li Jingfeng who tried in every way to make the Beijing government understand the importance of such an invitation for the Church and for China. If at least one of the bishops were to have appeared, it would have been a sign for the world that China is truly changing.
An analyst of China-Vatican relations, close to the Holy See, told AsiaNews: "China's international image goes back to being that of a closed and obscurantist country, even if lately it had been sending détente signals vis-à-vis the Church."
This time as well, as had been the case for the Synod in 1998 when John Paul II had unsuccessfully invited the two bishops of Wanxian, Monsignor Matthias Duan Yinmin and Joseph Xu Zhixuan 4 chairs labelled with the names of the absentees remained empty in the Synod Hall as a sign of their forced absence.
Chinese bishops: never have they been so present
Yet, never before has the Chinese Church been so much a part of the Synod and at the heart of the entire Church. Benedict XVI himself, in the solemn conclusive celebration of the Synod, in front of St. Peter's Basilica, before tens of thousands of faithful and television cameras from the world over, launched his greeting of communion to the 4 prelates and to the Church in China: "Now I would like, with you and in the name of the entire episcopate, to send a fraternal greeting to the Bishops of the Church in China. We have felt the absence of their representatives with sharp sadness. Nonetheless I want to assure all the Chinese bishops that we are close in prayer to them, their priests and their faithful. The suffered journey of the communities entrusted to their pastoral care, is present in our heart: it will not remain without fruit because it is a participation in the Easter Mystery, for the glory of the Father."
Without criticism, nor denunciations, the Pope highlighted his "sharp sadness" and the "suffered journey" of the Chinese Church which was effectively prevented from fully expressing its visible unity with the Holy See. Such unity, however, was strengthened: "we are close in prayer."
Such closeness was further signalled in the letter an absolute first in the history of Synods which the participants of the Synod specially published, addressing it to the 4 absent prelates: Archbishop Anthony Li Duan (Xian); Bishop Luke Li Jingfeng (Fenxiang); Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian (Shanghai); Bishop Joseph Wie Jinyi (Qiqihar).
The important fact is that signals were not lacking from China either.
According to AsiaNews sources, the 4 bishops sent to Benedict XVI a message to thank him for the honour given to them and to China with his invitation. They are all saddened for not being able to come to Rome. Three of them (Archbishop Anthony Li Duan of Xian; Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai, Bishop Luke Li Jingfeng of Fengxiang) cited health reasons; some mentioned the still unclear relations between China and the Vatican; all express gratitude and love for the Pope and the Universal Church and promise fidelity.
On October 18, a few days prior to the conclusion of the Synod, Cardinal Angelo Sodano even read a letter sent to the Pope by Bishop Luke Li. The letter had arrived at the Vatican on October 6. Cardinal Sodano said that Benedict XVI will personally write in reply to the 4 bishops. Currently, the Pope's reply and the text of the bishops' letters have not yet been made public.
One fact is certain: the Pope's gesture in extending these invitations and the unity expressed by these letters are a strong message to the entire world (and to the Chinese government) that:
· for the Pope, there is a single Church in China. The invitation extended to non-official bishops as well as official bishops reconciled with the Holy See lays claim to a relationship of communion between Rome and the Church in China that 56 years of Communism has not been able to spoil;
· the time has come for underground and official Christians to work ever more together to heal the divisions and misunderstandings of the past. This fracture has in fact already been on the mend over various years. The Pope's invitation to the 4 bishops is accelerating things. The division that has been overcome between the official and unofficial Church is another blow to the religion policy of the government which for decades sought to "reward" bishops that subjugate themselves to the Patriotic Association, while punishing with isolation and prison those who choose to stay out of it. Official and underground bishops consider by now their relationship with the Pope to be more important than "favours" bestowed by the Patriotic Association.
The government's reaction
What remains to be understood is the impact that such witnessing of unity between the Pope and Chinese bishops will have on the government of Beijing itself.
Certainly, a first fact is that the Vatican is disappointed by the behaviour of Beijing. One bitter comment that was made was: "We were deceived!" The Holy See had been working for over a year, in fact, on the Synod assembly and had been examining the participation of bishops from China. Contacts with the Chinese Embassy in Rome had made room for hope; the candidate bishops themselves, consulted during the planning stages, had said that "it was worth trying" and that chances were good. Chinese provincial governments had told designated bishops on several occasions that they would be "honoured to satisfy the Vatican's request." Even the central government had everything to win, following the humiliation suffered by Beijing in front of the entire world for having been absent from John Paul II's funeral, and the notable presence of Taiwan's president.
It was precisely this humiliation that was the mainspring that drove Beijing's desire to make a few gestures of détente. Permission for the bishops to go to Rome was to be matched with the official invitation of the Sisters of Mother Teresa to open a home in Qingdao. None of these things have yet taken place.
It should be noted that the central government has remained silent on the bishops' case. Only Ye Xiaown, State Administration Director for Religious Affairs, dared to say that "there is still some chance for dialogue." Until a few months ago, Ye had been one of the most unyielding defenders of an autonomous Chinese Church separate from Rome. Two years ago, he went all out in defending the criteria of "democracy" in the Chinese Church, to subordinate episcopal decisions to the voting of a Catholic Representatives Committee, where bishops make up a minority. His change in tone shows that something is truly moving in the government.
The most positive sign of this "movement" is Beijing's de facto acceptance of all the recent episcopal nominations made by the Vatican.