07/14/2009, 00.00
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Cardinal Zen: The Church in China two years after the Pope's Letter

by Card. Joseph Zen
Misinterpretations of the Letter have led to confusion and distress in the underground community. The official bishops must have more courage in their faithfulness to the pope, refusing structures that are contrary to the Catholic faith. The Chinese government continues its usual policy: total control of the Church.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - Two years after the Letter of Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics, Cardinal. Joseph Zen dares to assess the impact of the papal message, illustrating the difficulties and hindrances the underground community face, rejected by the government in Beijing; the timidity of the official community "caged" by the religious policy of the regime; the Chinese authorities continuing repression.

The cardinal, now bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, highlights the importance of the Compendium published May 23 last (see The Pope approves a compendium of his letter to Catholics in China), where certain aspects of the Letter are specified. This will help to correct the misinterpretation of certain points in the Letter, which dismissed the past experience of the Christian underground as superseded. This false interpretation - also helped by some bad translations and Vatican explanations, by now outdated - has created turmoil, pain and confusion in the underground communities. Card. Zen stresses the importance of the Pope's Letter’s condemnation of the Patriotic Association - not in line with the dogma of the Catholic faith - and asks the official bishops for greater courage in following the papal guidelines, rejecting the interference of politics in the life of Church and claiming full freedom of religion.

According to the cardinal, a tireless champion for religious freedom, the China of today needs the Church, its universal experience, its welcoming of all peoples, to address the globalization taking place in China and the world. For the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, being Catholic allows one to be truly patriotic and anyone who opposes their faith to serve the homeland (as the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party invokes) is prey to "sophistry."

The message of the card. Zen, entitled "Two years ago we received a letter from the Pope" is dated June 29, and has been published in recent days on the website of the Diocese of Hong Kong


Dear Brother and Sisters in the great family of our Catholic Church in China, On this Feast of St Peter and Paul, we celebrate also the second anniversary of the Letter of Pope Benedict to the Church in China.

In these days, from the Holy See you have received a compendium of the Letter of the Pope which helps you to understand more easily the essentials of the Pope’s teachings and also to dispel a wrong interpretation of a particular point of the Letter.

Allow me to underline few things in it.

1. Question 7 of the Compendium

First of all, to my brothers in the underground community, I like to point out the Compendium’s Question Number 7 which brought into evidence many quotations from the Letter where the Holy Father shows his appreciation for and encouragement to all those who have suffered and are still suffering for the Catholic faith.

Often we hear complaints from our brothers in the underground community that they feel abandoned, neglected, even considered a nuisance. We understand this impression and these feelings of theirs. But the rich quotations, from the Letter of the Pope, contained in Number 7 of the compendium should reassure them that the Holy Father is with them. From the bottom of my heart I wish to encourage my brothers in the clandestine community to persevere in their fidelity without compromise.

2. Footnotes 2 and 5 of the Compendium

I like also to bring to your particular attention the Footnotes Number 2 and Number 5 of the Compendium.

The Footnote Number 2 makes an important distinction between “a spiritual reconciliation of hearts and a structural merger into one system”. The Pope encourages the former which should be pursued with the almost commitment and urgency, while the realization of the latter may be beyond our unilateral good will.

Footnote Number 5 says clearly that the Pope “neither excludes the possibility of accepting or seeking Government recognition, nor encourages doing so”. Every body would like to act in the open freely, but unfortunately very often, “indeed almost always”, it is impossible to do so since conditions are imposed on us which are not compatible with our Catholic conscience. (For the phrase “indeed almost always” in the Chinese translation, please see the revised Chinese text which appeared on the Vatican website since the October 24th, 2008, when this phrase was re-inserted because it was missing from the first official Chinese edition of the Letter).

It is true that the Holy Father leaves the final decision to the single bishops on whether to accept / request the recognition by the Government. But the Holy Father also said that this decision is a very difficult one to make, because, most of the times, the conditions imposed by the Government render a positive decision impossible.

It is no secret that this delicate point of the Letter of the Pope, shortly after its publication, had received a tendentious interpretation that went beyond what the Holy Father had said. The interpretation stated that, according to the Holy Father, there was no longer any reason to remain in the situation of clandestinity and that the Holy Father wanted that all underground communities request the recognition of the Government. This interpretation also favoured an indiscriminate participation in Eucharistic concelebrations.

The error of such a view consists in that it chooses to overlook the long steps that it is necessary to make and thinks that one can reach immediately the goal. We may call it a sin of impatient optimism. People are easily tempted by optimism, so this erroneous interpretation has had an enormously wide diffusion in China and has been believed by many, as if this were the true will of the Holy Father.

However, since such an interpretation not only does not represent the mind of the Holy Father, but also goes against the cruel reality of the facts described by the Holy Father in his Letter, in the last two years this interpretation has had disastrous consequences all over the Church in China.

The fundamental reality is that the Government has kept its policy substantially unchanged, a policy that aims at enslaving the whole Church. That is why we have to witness such a painful spectacle: bishops and priests who, thinking they are obeying the Holy Father, make enormous efforts to come to terms with the Government; many of these, faced by the unacceptable conditions imposed by the Government, draw back, but in the process the clergy is no longer as united as before; others, thinking that to draw back would be to disobey the will of the Holy Father, have tried to remain in that situation of compromise, while striving hard to keep their peace of conscience, a contradictory state that makes deeply suffer not only the bishops directly involved, but also their priests who are no longer able to understand their bishop.

The Government, on its part, has presented itself as an enthusiastic executor of the will of the Pope, declaring itself the promoter of unity, evidently a unity under the total control of the Government inside the iron-tight structure of an independent Church.

Let us thank the Lord that finally in the Footnotes 2 and 5 of the Compendium the Holy See has given its own authoritative interpretation on this point. We hope that the Compendium may be able to resolve the painful contradiction in so many faithful hearts and to make it possible for the clandestine community to rebuild its faithful unity in suffering.

Obviously, on the level of reconciliation and communion of hearts between the two Church communities, there is much to be attempted and to be done as soon as possible, overcoming every negative feeling caused by historical situations not willed by us, but imposed on us from the outside.

3. Self-examination

In His letter the Pope has presented in unambiguous terms the apostolic nature of the Church, which is always to be led by the bishops, the successors of the Apostles, in communion with the Pope, the successor of Peter, the head of the Apostles. The Holy Father, in all his fatherly kindness, has put his finger on the abnormal present situation of our Church in China, controlled and led by bodies other than the Hierarchy established by Jesus Christ.

The enormous challenge now before us is to bring our Church back to normality, to be a truly catholic Church.

Two years have passed, since the Pope has written his Letter to us. Are we closer to the ideal of Christian fidelity portrayed in the Letter? If yes, let us thank God. If not, let us reflect seriously on why we have wasted such a precious gift from heaven. What we must meditate seriously upon is how much we have taken upon ourselves our small or big part of obligation in achieving this wonderful and arduous goal. How have we spent these two years? How many times have we asked ourselves: What should I do to make the Pope’s dream become a reality?

On the Day of Prayer for the Church in China this year, the Holy Father, while visiting the Montecassino Abbey, exhorted us “to renew our communion of faith in Christ and of fidelity to the successor of Peter”. He also expressed his hope that “the unity of all Christians, the catholicity and universality of the Church always will be deeper and more visible”. Those brothers and sisters in the clandestine community, do they still believe that it is worthwhile to suffer for the faith and that the sufferings would bring victory even though at the moment everything seems to be a failure? Those brothers and sisters in the open community, do they believe that their effort to come out of the canonically abnormal situation is important and that coherence with their status of being in communion with the Holy Father requires them to be courageous?

We all live in a particular moment of history. This gives us particular duties. Our very special duty today in the Church in China is to show to the Chinese people the true nature of the Catholic Church, the home of all peoples and nations. Its unity and universality fit so well into the globalizing desire of humankind. The Church is a community that welcomes all peoples without distinction and for that reason must not be dominated by any particular civil power.

The Church, who cares for our wellbeing on earth, brings us also towards an eternal goal: our homecoming to heavenly Father’s embrace. The rich inheritance which belongs to us has been gained through the suffering and death of our Saviour and has been entrusted to the Apostles, so that it may be faithfully transmitted through the ages. It is our greatest fortune to be called into this great family and it is now our noble duty to live out our faith with coherence, handing it down intact to future generations.

There are people who would like to establish an opposition between our fidelity to the Church and our patriotic duty to our Country. You know that this is a sophism. We all know that, precisely by being loyal to our Church, we are being truly patriotic, because the building up of a truly Catholic Church in China is our specific contribution to the greatness of our Motherland.

We must pray that the leaders of our Nation come to understand that a free Catholic Church is no threat to our country. On the contrary, if we are allowed to live happily our faith, we can contribute more to the welfare and all-round progress of our people.

Dear brother and sisters, look higher up, unto “the mountains from which my help comes” (Ps 120[121]). On this journey of faith, we have been promised both tribulations and consolations. Our companions and models are the Saints and especially the glorious Martyrs.

Mary, Help of Christians, our heavenly mother and the Star of Hope, to whom the Pope has entrusted our Church, will lead us to peaceful victory.

Cardinal Joseph Zen 29 June 2009

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See also
Pope’s letter to the Chinese Church ready “around Easter”, says Cardinal Zen
Card. Zen publishes a guide to Pope's letter to Chinese Catholics
Pope approves Compendium of his Letter to the Catholics of China
Cardinal Zen: Catholic Church in China, dialogue or confrontation with the government
Chinese Church preparing to celebrate 60th anniversary of 'independent' episcopal ordinations
10/02/2018 14:38


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