Rome (AsiaNews) - Every year, the hill shrine of Our Lady of Sheshan, near Shanghai, is transformed into a battlefield. On the very day of its solemnity, May 24, Mary Help of Christians, hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes policemen swarm the mount like zealous ants, eyes and cameras peeled to ensure every corner of the hill on which the Church stands is under guard, to check pilgrims documents, making them go through metal detectors, as if they were battling a new form of terrorism.
The (spiritual!) "terrorist" in question is none other than the Pope and his followers, who since 2007 has asked Catholics around the world each year to celebrate a day of prayer for the Church in China, coinciding with the festival and pilgrimage to Sheshan.
Establishing the Day in his Letter to Chinese Catholics (2007), the Pope had expressed the intention that through prayer unity between underground and official Christians and communion with the Successor of Peter may be strengthened, while also asking the Lord for the strength to persevere in Christian witness, even amid the sufferings of persecution.
Since then Beijing has “declared war”, doing everything in its power to prevent this promise of unity from being fulfilled. For this very reason, as has already been noted in recent days, tens of underground priests have been arrested, others have been taken on a forced vacation, “at the government’s expense", with the sole aim of preventing them from reaching the sanctuary. Even official Catholics, recognized by Beijing suffer limitations to their freedom, they too are forbidden to go to Sheshan in May, they are obliged to remain in their diocese and a ban is placed on foreign pilgrims.
In the past, every May 24th tens of thousands of official and underground Catholics would make pilgrimages to the shrine, in a common gesture of prayer and reconciliation. Now only a few hundred of the faithful of the diocese of Shanghai succeed in overcoming all barriers to pray to the Mother of God, Help of Christians.
This year, the need for prayer is even more heightened. Last November, Beijing ordained a bishop without Papal permission in Chengde, in December 40 bishops, priests and lay people were deported and forced to participate in the Assembly of Catholic representatives, not recognized by the pope, to elect the leaders of the Council of bishops and of the Patriotic Association. Among them excommunicated bishops. Only days ago, President Emeritus of the Patriotic Association, Anthony Liu Bainian, threatened the ordination of dozens of bishops without the consent of the pope.
The Chinese Church is powerless against this all-out war launched to divide and destroy the already beleaguered community of official and underground Catholics.
For this reason, May 18 last Pope Benedict XVI once again urged the faithful around the world and especially the Chinese faithful to pray this May 24 for bishops and priests in China, some of whom are "suffering and under pressure in the exercise of their ministry ", while others need to overcome "the temptation of a path independent of Peter", others still "are ensnared by the false illusions of opportunism".
Beijing’s war is comprised of control, bans and arrests: dozens of underground priests have been committed to forced labor; bishops held in police custody for decades have disappeared, official bishops, priests and their families have been terrorised and threatened. Instead the “Pope’s battle" is waged with prayer for those who govern, according to "the commandment that Jesus gave us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us" (see Letter 19).
We know who is winning: after 60 years of power, of persecution, and of plans to give birth to a Church independent from Rome, Christians in China still remain united to the Pope. And they pray according to his indications: in many dioceses in China, celebrations are scheduled for May 24, Eucharistic adoration, Rosaries for the Church's unity with the pope. An underground priest in Shanghai, who has been restricted in his ministry, prays from his prison-room: "Our Lady of Sheshan, bless the Church in China. So that all priests have the freedom to evangelize our country. "
This suffering Church also needs the prayer and solidarity of the universal Church.