03/11/2019, 14.05
CHINA-VATICAN
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Vatican and Xi Jinping: clarifying the fate of the underground Church and the Patriotic Association

by Bernardo Cervellera

Since the signing of the agreement, members of the non-official communities have been forced to join the PA and its "independent" Church project. It is said that the underground Church "must disappear". But Pope Francis’ message  speaks only of "reconciliation". Card. Filoni demands that PA membership not be mandatory, as under Chinese law. But there are bishops and priests who acclaim unity through "erasing" the underground community. The time has come for clarity, perhaps in a meeting between Pope Francis and the Chinese president.

Rome (AsiaNews) - From March 20 to 23 next, President Xi Jinping will be in Italy. Rumors are already circulating in China of a possible meeting with Pope Francis. Should this be the case, it would be important to clarify the fate of the underground Church and the Patriotic Association.

The Sino-Vatican agreement and the lifting of the excommunication of seven illegitimate bishops seem to have endorsed the idea that by now the only way to live one’s faith in China is in the official Church and that the underground community must disappear.

This position is also strengthened by the push towards reconciliation and unity requested by Pope Francis with his Message to Chinese Catholics and to the Universal Church, published a few days after the signing of the agreement.

In it, quoting Pope Benedict XVI, Francis affirms that the phenomenon of clandestinity " is not a normal part of the life of the Church", but also says – again citing Benedict - that "  pastors and faithful have recourse to it only amid suffering, in the desire to maintain the integrity of their faith".

In the Message, Pope Francis asks all the faithful to "work towards reconciliation" and " restore full communion among all Chinese Catholics", he urges them to “now offer gestures of reconciliation and communion " to "overcome the divisions of the past" .

He also asked the pastors to establish "ever more fruitful ... relations between the leaders of ecclesial communities and the civil authorities become more productive through frank dialogue and impartial listening, so as to overcome antagonism on both sides".

The papal Message, therefore, speaks of a process of reconciliation, but does not say that it must be achieved by eliminating the underground community. Moreover, it does not say that unofficial bishops and priests should be forced to join the Patriotic Association (PA).

In this regard, on the contrary, it is probable that in the Sino-Vatican agreement - which unfortunately has not yet been published - it is stressed that membership of the PA is optional and not mandatory. This aspect is deduced from a note by Prof. Wang Meixiu, from the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing who, commenting on the agreement for AsiaNews, says that the PA is "a popular organization" and not an ecclesial association; and that "participation is voluntary and not imposed".

Also Card. Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, in an interview with the Osservatore Romano of 3 February 2019, at one point says: "I hope, therefore, not to hear or read about local situations in which the Agreement is exploited to compel people to do what is not even required by Chinese law, such as joining the Patriotic Association ".

Instead, unfortunately, this is precisely what is happening. In Xinjian, Inner Mongolia, Henan, Zhejiang, Hubei, the Religious Affairs Office continues to demand and encourage priests and bishops to join the PA and its project of "independence" (from the Holy See). Even the incident in Xuanhua (Hebei), where a priest - supported by the local government - accuses his bishop, Msgr. Augustus Cui Tai of "resistance" to the Sino-Vatican agreement and urges the police to arrest him, showing how the falsely "patriotic" and "independent" mentality is also being imposed on the clergy.

Hebei is not new to this attempt to force members of the unofficial community to become official by joining the PA. For several months, four priests of the underground community (unofficial) of Zhangjiakou (Hebei) have been kept in an unknown location, subjected to indoctrination and brainwashing to make them join the Patriotic Association (PA).

Yet, these unofficial bishops and priests are "good citizens" and support the development of the nation, as is the wish of Pope Francis. The only point of resistance is membership of the PA, and its project of "independence of the Church" which for Benedict XVI is "incompatible with Catholic doctrine".

The amazing fact is that even some bishops – precisely among those from whom Pope Francis lifted excommunication - proclaim that it is time to erase the underground community and join the PA. In recent days, Magr. Vincent Zhan Silu, of Mindong - who took the place of ordinary bishop Msgr. Guo Xijin - was in Beijing as a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Responding March 3 to a Sintao Daily journalist who asked him if he did not mind that the faithful are being forced to enter the official community, meaning the unofficial one would disappear, he declared that this is the only way for "the Church to be united". Msgr. Zhan even said that underground Catholics do not take on an official status for "reasons of personal interest". Msgr. Zhan is vice-president of the PA and benefits greatly from this position.

Another of the reconciled bishops, Msgr. She Shiyin of Leshan (Sichuan), also vice-president of the PA, has even declared that the application of the new religious regulations (in which young people under 18 are forbidden to take part in the functions and receive a religious education in addition to the demolition of crosses and statues that are not "sinicized") does not create any problems for religious freedom.

Fortunately, there are also official bishops full of dignity. At the same meeting of the CPCPC, Msgr. Fang Jianping, vice president of the Council of Chinese Bishops, in an interview with the radio station in Hong Kong, said that the official Church should adhere to the spirit of Pope Francis without "forcing the believers of the underground community to move to the officially recognized Church ".

When President Xi Jinping is in Italy, in the possibility of a meeting with Pope Francis, both could clarify some of these directives.

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