Rome (AsiaNews) - On May 24 last, feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, Chinese Catholics at home and around the world prayed for the Church in China, according to the indications laid out by Benedict XVI in his letter of June 2007, where he called for a World Day of Prayer for the Church in China on May 24, the feast day of Our Lady of Sheshan, the national shrine on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Sheshan has always been a place where underground and official Christians and have come together in devotion to Mary. The idea of the Pope, contained in his Letter and again repeated on the feast of Pentecost, is that "faithful in China pray so that the unity among themselves and with the universal Church will deepen more and more and that the Catholics of the world - especially those who are of Chinese origin - join them in prayer and charity".
Since then and for the last three years the Day of Prayer has been quite successful in Italy and abroad, where the Episcopal conferences have prepared collections and celebrations. But it also had some success in China, despite the resistance of the government and the Patriotic Association and their attempts to stop the faithful on pilgrimage to Sheshan.
Since the Pope first indicated Sheshan as the place to pray for Church unity in China, during the month of May, the Shanghai government has banned pilgrimages to the sanctuary from neighbouring dioceses. Usually in the past, an estimated 20, 000 faithful would gather on Our Lady’s hill on May 24. Instead for the past three years, only a few thousand have gathered there, all of them from Shanghai. Other faithful are forbidden from approaching the sanctuary, by the deployment of police and "volunteers" who stop the faithful on the roads leading to the shrine, at a distance of several kilometres.
But the priests and bishops have not lost heart and have instead turned the day into a diocesan appointment. Many of the testimonies that we have received speak of Masses, Eucharistic Adoration and Benedictions, pilgrimages to local shrines. Everyone, the communities of official and underground believers, prayed for unity and brotherhood between the two branches of the Church. Everyone prayed for the young bishops of the official Church, so they may be reinforced in their witness and in communion with the successor of Peter, everyone also prayed for all the bishops of the underground Church who are still in prison.
From this point of view, the Day has been a really great success because it generates common expectations and concerns in all the faithful.
But it is above all unity between bishops and between them and the pope that needs to be strengthened. The government in Beijing is not implementing the same cruel persecution of the past. Even underground bishops who have disappeared are perhaps in some isolated place, but lack freedom. The real persecution that it is implementing is division. By arresting bishops who call for freedom of religion, Beijing warns official bishops, who are perhaps a bit fearful, that they risk losing what little freedom of worship is granted them.
At the same time, Beijing does not seem to prevent new Episcopal ordinations approved by the Vatican (as in the case of Xiamen, Hohhot, Haimen). But it makes sure that excommunicated bishops are included among concelebrating bishops, thus making unity with the underground faithful increasingly difficult, while at the same time making a clear gesture of contempt towards the Pope. Only last March, the China-Vatican Commission released a text which stated that "Chinese bishops have the full dignity and responsibility of leading the Catholic community, they should avoid actions that go against communion with the Pope, such as Episcopal ordinations, concelebrations and public meetings with illegitimate bishops".
We here at AsiaNews believe that working for unity in truth of the Church in China is the most important step, even more so than diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Vatican. Official bishops should be concerned for their brother bishops from the underground community who have disappeared, and underground communities should be more friendly and merciful towards the faithful of the official community.
The thirst for God in China is immense and the population is now nauseated by materialism. Mutual love can give birth to abundant fruit for mission.