11/18/2009, 00.00
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The Church's problems in China and Cardinal Bertone’s letter

by Annie Lam
The cardinal’s letter raises some questions. It is useful because it spurs the clergy to re-read the Pope’s 2007 letter to better study it, but it has its limits because of the great challenges clergymen must face in today’s China, namely secularism and utilitarianism. Benedict XVI’s instructions are being implemented too slowly. For cardinal Zen, the papal letter is the best contribution of the Church to Chinese society.
Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – The Vatican Secretary of State Card Tarcisio Bertone recently wrote a letter to mainland Chinese priests. For some Church-in-China experts, it is a significant contribution to the debate; for others, it falls short of what is needed. For Card Joseph Zen, the situation of China’s official Catholic Church has deteriorated rather than improved.

Anthony Lam Sui-ki is a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong. For him, the letter by the Secretary of State appears to be telling the mainland’s clergy to study more closely the papal letter (released in June 2007) and its compendium (published in May 2009) in order to make it more effective. Nevertheless, “it may be too early to see the effect of the papal letter just two years after its release,” he said.

For Lam, the Vatican is hard pressed to address in a single letter all the problems of the Chinese Church, such as the unity of official and underground communities. Cardinal Bertone’s letter focuses on cooperation between bishops and priests, suggesting that I can be improved through better priest training. Its emphasis is on improving communication and dialogue between bishops and priests.

The researcher points out the letter calls on the Chinese Church to develop a more “normal” pastoral organisation, that it urges mainland Church leaders to better define Episcopal and priestly ministries, and set up more appropriate bodies to manage the dioceses such as priest councils, as suggested in the papal letter.

Kwun Ping-hung, a Hong Kong-based observer of Sino-Vatican relations, noted that Cardinal Bertone wrote two letters to the Church in China in two years. This is a sign that since the start of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate, the Vatican has become deeply concerned about the Chinese Church, especially after the Holy Father issued his Letter to the Chinese Church in 2007. “This helps the Holy See strengthen its ties and internal communion with the Chinese Church,” he noted.

As Cardinal Bertone noted, some signs of hope have emerged in recent years in terms of reconciliation within the Church and relations with Chinese authorities. However, difficulties persist. Given this background, the Secretary of State chose to emphasise the priest training. “This can be regarded as a rather pragmatic approach for the Holy See,” Kwun noted. In fact, many mainland priests live in an atmosphere of utilitarianism and secularisation where they face many tests and challenges. Thus, speaking for the Holy See, the Secretary of State has called on the Chinese Church to focus on priest training as way to ensure the long-term development of the Church in China.

For Fr Gianni Criveller, the cardinal’s unmediated letter to priests is somewhat “unusual” since most Vatican letters are directly addressed to Chinese bishops. However, for Fr Criveller, Cardinal Bertone’s letter is actually directed at the bishops. China’s young pastors need training and support from the universal Church, he said.

Unfortunately, Criveller notes, the Vatican has invested more time and energy in writing nice letters than in implementing what it wrote in them. The 2007 papal letter is a case in point. “So far,” he said, “only the Commission for China has been set up in the past two years, but little more.”

For him, Cardinal Bertone’s letter inadequately addresses challenges like secularisation and modernisation that priests must face in mainland China.

Cardinal Bertone’s letter also gave Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong an opportunity to write on the subject in his blog on the Hong Kong Diocese website.

Even though Cardinal Bertone’s letter sees some “signs of hope”, Cardinal Zen finds events in China over the past two years quite disappointing.

In his blog, the prelate describes how the situation of the Church in China has not improved; indeed, its abnormal situation has actually worsened.

In his opinion, the official Church made a mistake when it decided to take part in celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (July 2007), and the 50th anniversary of Episcopal ordinations without papal mandate (December 2008).

In his conclusion, Cardinal Zen noted that patriotism and love are not in opposition, and that the faithful should be allowed to live peacefully their faith according to their conscience.

For him, the best contribution the Church in China can make to the Chinese nation is having the Church live according to the papal letter.

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