09/02/2021, 15.01
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Even with Beijing ‘you can be deceived in dialogue’

by Gianni Criveller *

Fr Criveller reacts to Pope Francis' China interview published yesterday. For the PIME missionary and China watcher, the Pope heard the words of those worried about the Vatican-China agreement. “[W]e truly hope the Pope succeeds,” he writes, but pledges to continue reporting on “what is happening on the ground where the room for freedom has been restricted” for Chinese Catholics.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis is once again talking about China. He doesn't do this often. For this reason, what he told Spanish Radio COPE, reported yesterday by AsiaNews, is important.

His words have a new flavour with respect to the past, not to mention the apologetic enthusiasm of those who feel authorised to talk about the Pope's thoughts.

When Francis says that the issue of China “is not easy”, he seems to be admitting, compared to what was said in the past, that it is more than its great civilisation, the more clearly when he says, “You can be deceived in dialogue, you can make mistakes”.

I don't think the Pope would mention this if he could avoid it. Thus, he too fears that the outcome of the agreement between China and the Vatican might be a flop.

The fact that the Pope admits this possibility shows that he is aware of the situation on the ground. He heard the worried words of those in China who spoke out in recent years as well as those who follow developments in the country’s Catholic communities.

After describing the positive and less positive aspects of the 2018 agreement, we noted that China's agreement with the Vatican could be "a shrewd deception”, providing China’s rulers an opportunity to display a certain openness not found on the ground where the room for freedom has been restricted.

The Pope makes an initial assessment, one that is rather thin, short of expectations and hopes. “What has been achieved so far in China was at least dialogue,” he said, “some concrete things like the appointment of new bishops, slowly... But these are also steps that can be questionable and the results on one side or the other.”

In reality, few bishops have been appointed compared to the needs of the people of God. Some of them were chosen before the agreement itself, which has produced few other benefits, as far as we can tell. On the contrary, as reports from Catholic communities show, believers face an increasingly difficult situation.

The Pope correctly does not bring up the pandemic to justify poor results. The pandemic, in fact, has not prevented China from getting results in other areas, including the suppression of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.

Amid all this, Francis stresses that “we should not give up dialogue”. This is strong point in what he said. We can but appreciate the Pope's faith in dialogue, which is especially important with the most stubborn interlocutors.

Martyrdom is also an aspect in dialogue (martyrdom as suffering while bearing witness). The pope says that he was inspired by the dialogue Agostino Casaroli begun with the old European communist regimes. 

Casaroli talks about it in The Martyrdom of Patience, a suggestive title that inspired the Pope’s thoughts. Therefore, to engage China in dialogue requires the martyrdom of patience. Chinese Catholics know this well, and have very little to rejoice.

With all our hearts as loyal Catholics, we truly hope the Pope succeeds, and achieve through such truly difficult dialogue, what he has in his heart, namely freedom for the Church in China and good tidings and peace for its people.

“Even when I was a layman and priest, I loved to show the way to the bishop; it is a temptation that I would even say is licit if it is done with good will,” said Francis, in the self-deprecating style that he sometimes uses, as he addressed the many doubts and concerns expressed about the agreement between China and the Vatican, which was renewed in October 2020.

We are among those who were, and still are, tempted to “show the way”, that is, to respectfully show the Holy See, in good conscience and good will, the reports we are getting from our brothers and sisters in China as well as their concerns and sufferings. 

We express our loyalty to the Pope and his aides by supplying them with analyses and reflections that outline the complexity of the situation, including what challenges success stories.

This is why we think that silence – by Catholic media as well, apparently – about the obstacles China’s Catholic communities face (and other tragedies unfolding in that country) does not serve the Pope.

In 1933 Edith Stein (proclaimed martyr, saint and patroness of Europe by John Paul II) wrote a very principled letter to Pius XI imploring him not to be silent about Hitler's policies. Therefore, dialogue – which has an aspect of suffering while bearing witness – cannot move forward if one side is silent.

One might therefore surmise that the Holy See has found ways, albeit not publicly known, to express its disappointment to the other side about the decline of freedom of religious worship in China and the suppression of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.

If, as the Pope said on Spanish radio, showing “the way to the bishop” is a legitimate temptation which he has practiced in the past, it is to be hoped that many will follow his example and allow themselves to be overcome by such temptation and send their critical contribution to the Pope and the Holy See, yours truly included.

* PIME missionary and China watcher

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