Benedict XVI, his Letter to Chinese Catholics and Beijing
by Gianni Criveller *

Elevate to the cardinalate by Pope Benedict XVI, the Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, Mgr Joseph Zen, will be in Rome for the funeral after his passport was momentarily returned. For Fr Gianni Criveller, PIME missionary and sinologist, the 2007 Letter to Chinese Catholics was a “small masterpiece of lucidity, balance and tactfulness” about the Church in China, but Chinese authorities have opposed  it, challenged it and persecuted people for it. After 15 years, “unity for the Church in China expressed by Benedict XVI is still elusive.”

Milan (AsiaNews) – Card Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, will be present at Pope Benedict XVI’s funeral tomorrow at the Vatican. A Hong Kong court granted the 90-year-old prelate a temporary passport and a four-day leave to travel to Rome. Recently, the bishop was tried and convicted of a misdemeanour under China’s draconian national security. For his troubles, he was fined.

The veteran prelate, who was elevated to the cardinalate by Benedict XVI himself in 2006, wrote about the late pope emeritus in his blog (in Italian), expressing gratitude to Benedict XVI for “defending the truth against the dictatorship of relativism,” but also for the 2007 Letter to Chinese Catholics and his efforts to improve the situation of the Church in China. "He could not accept any compromise," Zen writes. “I am still convinced that every effort to improve the situation of the Church in China must be made along the lines of the 2007 Letter."

In view of the importance of this document for the magisterium of Benedict XVI and on how much the eight years of his pontificate have meant for China, we publish below the analysis of Fr. Gianni Criveller, PIME missionary and sinologist.

Following in the footsteps of John Paul II, Benedict XVI saw improving relations with China and supporting Chinese Catholics as important objectives for his pontificate.

Benedict XVI’s Chinese cardinals

In March 1993, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made an important trip to Hong Kong where he met 25 bishops members of the doctrinal commissions of Asian Bishops' Conferences. On that occasion, he made a key speech centred on inculturation, proposing the term “inter-culturalità” (inter-culturalness) to describe the complex relationship between the Gospel and cultures. On that trip, Card Ratzinger visited Macau. He also visited The Peak, a summit with a spectacular view of Hong Kong, accompanied by Father John Tong, who is now a cardinal.

After he became pope, Benedict XVI elevated two Hong Kong bishops to the cardinalate; one of them was a Salesian, Joseph Zen, with whom he had a strong and meaningful personal relationship. In 2006, the “conscience of Hong Kong" received his scarlet zucchetto.  The pope also entrusted him with the meditations of the Way of the Cross for Good Friday 2008.

“In this invitation I recognised the Holy Father's desire to show his personal concern for the great Asian continent,” Card Zen wrote; “in particular, the inclusion in this solemn act of Christian piety the faithful of China, who have a deep devotion for the Way of the Cross. The pope wanted me to bring to the Colosseum the voice of these sisters and brothers of ours."

In 2012, it was Bishop John Tong’s turn to be created cardinal. By virtue of this choice, Bishop Tong, who is now 83 years old, took part in the conclave in 2013.

Benedict XVI was also knowledgeable about Matteo Ricci. He backed his cause of beatification, competently outlining Ricci's missionary qualities. “And it was precisely while he was proclaiming the Gospel,” the pope emeritus said on 29 May 2010 in a meeting with Catholics from Ricci’s native Marche region on the 400th anniversary of his death, “that Fr Ricci discovered in those with whom he was conversing the request for a broader exchange, so that the encounter motivated by faith also became an intercultural dialogue; a disinterested dialogue, free from financial or political ambition and lived in friendship.”

The historic letter to Chinese Catholics

Benedict XVI’s historic letter addressed to Catholics in China was published on 30 June 2007. An ecclesial letter, addressed directly to Catholics, not to China’s government authorities who claim the right to come between Catholics and any external authority. It is not a political letter even if it has political implications.

In it, the pope expresses hope for a dialogue between the authorities of the People's Republic of China and the Holy See; the Church, in fact, teaches the faithful to be good citizens in their respective country and asks the authorities not to hinder matters that concern the faith and discipline of the Church.

Benedict XVI asked Chinese authorities to recognise underground bishops. However, he admits that "almost always" official bishops are forced “to adopt attitudes, make gestures and undertake commitments that are contrary to the dictates of their conscience as Catholics.”

Should the bishops accept recognition by the civil authorities or not? The pope left it to individual bishops to choose a path according to their own situations.

The Letter to Chinese Catholics was written by a churchman describing what the Church is like. It has a foundation and a structure that is valid forever and everywhere, without which the Church is no longer herself. The faithful in China have the right to be fully part of it. The pope calls for unity between official and underground communities within a faithful Church, free, capable of bearing witness to the truth, open to acceptance and forgiveness.

Truth and love, which underpin Benedict XVI’s pontificate, are also the two pillars on which he built his long and articulate letter. For the pontiff declares his love and respect for the people of China, their history and culture. From the authorities, he asks freedom, not privileges. The pope notes that freedom of religion is a human right covered by international conventions signed by China.

Meditating on the pages of the Book of Revelation, Benedict XVI shares the bewilderment of Christians at God's silence in the face of persecution. He urges Catholics not to turn inward, for, while the Church rejects interference by the state, she does not, however, want to go underground; her goals are to bear witness in public, serve the common good, seek the unity of believers, show visible communion with the universal Church and act as Peter’s successor. Despite hardships, in China, the Church has the same mission like every other ecclesial community: evangelisation.

In the letter, the pope repeals some special powers granted to the underground Church during the decades of persecution, such as the possibility, in case of need, of ordaining bishops even without a pontifical mandate.

Finally, it makes 24 May, the feast of Mary Help of Christians and the National Marian Shrine of Sheshan (Shanghai), a Day of Prayer for the Church in China. For Chinese communities, especially in the diaspora, this day become a great moment for great participation.

Benedict XVI had a lot of courage, walking into a field full of pitfalls. Insofar as they were cognisant of what was happening in China, experts offered the pope contradictory opinions. In certain circumstances, Chinese Catholics have also been at odds with each other. The pope had his say, producing what some consider to be a small masterpiece of lucidity, balance and tactfulness.

Catholics, whether in official or underground communities, greatly appreciated the letter addressed to them. Catholics, including those in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, appreciated the pope's efforts to understand their situation, to sympathise with them, to offer them clear and sustainable guidelines, without condemnations, but also unwilling to accept that the Church’s freedom be trampled upon.

Some 15 years have passed since then and one may wonder if the letter has produced the desired results. His successor, Pope Francis, signed a provisional pastoral agreement with the civil authorities in 2018, which was renewed in 2020 and 2022, precisely on the very delicate issue of episcopal appointments. According to some sources, the agreement was already in the pipeline in 2009, but Pope Benedict stopped it before it was signed; the reason for that remains unclear.

What is certain is that Benedict XVI's letter remains a fundamental moment in the history of the Chinese Church. It contains the seeds for the Church’s unity and freedom to blossom. Some movement has occurred on the path of unity, but religious freedom is not yet achieved. Despite the 2018 agreement, many steps still lie ahead.

The government's reaction, unlawful ordinations, and the excommunication of three bishops

During Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate, relations with China saw ups and downs. Chinese authorities have tried to prevent Catholics from having access to the pope's letter by blocking websites and seizing printed copies. They tried to frustrate his wishes and twist the letter’s meaning. As a result, Benedict XVI was forced to publicly excommunicate three unlawful bishops, a first since 1958.

After a few years of lawful episcopal ordinations (i.e. approved by the Holy See), three bishops were ordained unlawfully in 2006. Between 2007 and late 2010, ordinations were jointly accepted by both sides, although approval was granted without direct negotiations. On 20 November 2010, the unlawful consecration of Guo Jincai as bishop of Chengde soured relations between the Vatican and China.

When the government, with much ostentation, held the Eighth National Assembly of Catholic Representatives in Beijing in December 2010, relations went from bad to worse. The meeting’s agenda included the election of the new leaders of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Bishops’ Conference. The Holy See asked in vain that the assembly be put off, which caused more suffering and divisions.

The bishops who boycotted it, by making themselves scarce or through a passive presence, were subject to serious reprisals. Shanghai’s auxiliary bishop, Joseph Xing Wenzhi, who stood his ground against the government, was forced to resign after he was accused by the secret police of having an affair with a woman.

Two more, Lei Shiyin and Huang Bingzhang, were consecrated without the pope's approval as bishops of Leshan (29 June 2011) and Shantou (14 July 2011) respectively. The Holy See responded by publicly excommunicating them.

On 25 July 2011, Chinese authorities called the harsh sanctions as "extremely unreasonable and tough”; these words were followed by deeds. Since July 2011, many Church members, mostly Hong Kong residents, have not been able to enter mainland China, despite having valid visas. The United Front offices in Beijing had a list of 23 people subject to restrictive measures (including some PIME missionaries).

In April 2012, two jointly approved ordinations were held in Nanchong (Sichuan) and Changsha (Hunan), but with unlawful bishops as consecrators. On 6 July 2012, Yue Fusheng was ordained bishop of Harbin (Heilongjiang) despite the opposition of the Holy See. As a result, the Holy See publicly excommunicated Yue, known for being close to the government.

All three excommunicated bishops were readmitted into the ecclesial communion thanks to the agreement between the Holy See and China of 2018.

The case of Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai marked another low point. On 7 July 2012, he was ordained auxiliary bishop in Shanghai cathedral with the approval of both sides, but, once again, the authorities imposed the presence of an unlawful bishop, to the dismay of many priests, religious and lay people who decided not to take part in the rite.

The new bishop declared that he wanted to quit the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a courageous gesture, which he paid dearly. Government officials seized him that same evening, and more than 10 years later, he is still under house arrest in Sheshan seminary (Shanghai).

The eight years of Benedict XVI's pontificate were marked by great hope for the Church in China, especially thanks to his letter, but also painful divisions. Benedict XVI’S dream of freedom and unity for the Church in China remains unrealised.

* PIME missionary and sinologist