03/10/2004, 00.00
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The Church in China looks to Rome

by Gianni Criveller, PIME
An interview with Msgr. Anthony  Li Duan,  bishop of Xian.

Xian  (AsiaNews) – Msgr. Anthony Li Duan is one of the most noteworthy figures in the Chinese Catholic Church. Born June 13 1927, he has been the bishop of Xian since 1987. He has spent long periods in prison: from 1954-57, 1958-60 and then again from 1966-79. He is considered a moral leader of the "Official Church", both inside China and abroad.

In recent years Msgr. Li Duan has earned distinction for his pastoral initiatives and determination to defend the rights and freedoms of the Church. A prudent and courageous pastor, he is at the same time faithful to Rome and willing to cooperate with government authorities without giving in on key issues concerning Church law and faith. He courageously removed himself from the illegitimate consecration of 5 bishops in Beijing on Jan. 6 2000, just as he acted with similar courage in October of the same year to fight a political campaign against the canonization of 120 Chinese martyrs.

Below we offer substantial excerpts from an interview appearing in the March issue of PIME's (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) monthly magazine, Mondo e Missione.


Your excellency, let's begin with the issue of the pope's primacy. What do you have to say about this?

The pope is the head of the Church. The apostolic nature of the Church consists in the fact that the Church descends from the apostles, starting with Peter as its first leader. The pope has the right to govern and supervise all the Church's activities, including the election of bishops.

We will never deny the pope has the right to do so, since this is an essential element of our Catholic faith. Now the pope's right to govern must be understand as true while in China, however, we have a religious policy sustaining the Church's independent and democratic administration. How can both be compatible?

 I think the Holy See and the Chinese government have the means to resolve this issue. The most urgent problem now involves electing new bishops. Under today's circumstances we cannot go ahead and consecrate new bishops without government authorization. If the government is not against the candidate, we then proceed to present him to Rome for approval. Should the pope not give his consent, then the bishop is not consecrated.

What is your opinion regarding diplomatic relations between China and the Holy See?

I think that both parties want to reestablish relations and I believe the pope personally wants this. The greatest stumbling block is still that of choosing and consecrating bishops. Indeed there are difficulties, yet it must be also said that great steps have been taken in the right direction. The Chinese government, for example, recognizes that the pope has the primary role in the Catholic Church. We publicly pray for the pope, having no reticence about saying the Church is one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic. I am confident that there is ever less distance between the two.  

In 2003 three documents were approved, endorsing the principle of democratic administration of the Church. What do you think about this?

If these documents are in line with Catholic tradition, then we can accept them. Yet the role of Church hierarchy must be absolutely preserved, just as Christ wanted. The power of bishops, as successors of the apostles, is a true form of governing. Certainly each bishop has his limits and must lead the Church as (God's) servant.

Yet his power is real, not symbolic. No one can take the place of a bishop in leading the Church. Vatican Council II promoted the participation of the laity in the Church. While a bishop must open himself up to and accept their contributions, he is still their leader. His role can never be deprived of such significance!

What do you think about the role of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics (PACC)?

Under present circumstances we acknowledge the existence of the Patriotic Association. If its whole purpose was to act as an association of Catholic faithful, there would be no problems with it. However, the Patriotic Association cannot act above the Church, but must be something within the Church and subordinated to the bishop.

What do you have to say about the so-called "underground Church" in China?

All Catholics in China are united under the same faith. As far as I know, the pope respects both communities and urges us toward reconciliation and unity. Some members of the underground Church say we have rebelled against the pope. I belong to the "open Church". But I am not rebellious, since in no way whatsoever do I deny the pope's primacy. We have the same faith and we both support the Holy Father. Hence we should join together in terms of traditional Church organization and doctrine.

Modernization seems to lead to secularization. How is the Church reacting to this challenge?

Secularization is a universal challenge, one which now both the Church and China must face. Society is quickly moving toward money and hedonism. We Christians, even priests, religious and bishops, live in society and we are naturally influenced by it. This is especially true for young priests who see persons of their same age getting rich and living comfortable lives. On the contrary, the lives of priests in China are very hard, while leading lives of poverty and without most human comforts and satisfactions. It is easy for them to become discouraged. The same holds true for young nuns and sisters.  

Is the faith still passed on in Catholic families?

Once upon a time the faith was successfully passed on from parents to children. Today this still happens, but not as easily. Nowadays families need help in this duty, since they cannot tackle the dangers of secularization all by themselves. In recent years we organized formation courses on the Catholic faith for Chinese youth as well as children's "summer camps". However government authorities had forbidden us to organize such activities any more. 

What kinds of social services is the Church involved in?

Since 2002 our diocesan offices have been active in social services backed by Misereor  (an organization of the German Catholic Church sponsoring international cooperation).  It works out quite well, with our 5 full-time operators and 3 volunteer staff.

We sponsor small projects in poor villages throughout the province of Shaanxi, like building wells, irrigation systems and supporting health and educational services (for hair-lip operations and building schools). We also provide care to orphans and relief following natural disasters. This is a new development for the Church in China. And I must say our diocese is at the forefront in this field.

What sort of prospects are there for evangelization in China?

It is well know that many youth are attracted to the Christian faith. Even a certain number of intellectuals are open to Christianity.

In this field, it seems that Protestants have a greater rate of "success". Is this true?  

Certainly. They are growing at a faster rate. They are more active. They are required to "bear fruit", that is, bring new members into the community. And their members are warmly and enthusiastically accepted, much more than in our community. The teachings they present to new members is much simpler and more basic than ours. It is easier for them to understand and accept. Moreover, they have greater contact with students and intellectuals, who are enamored with a biblical faith which doesn't require duties and obligations of them. However, we must be happy with their success. In one way or another they hear the words of Christ. And when some of them deepen their faith they end up appreciating the treasures of Catholic tradition and doctrine.  

So it seems the Catholic Church lacks a missionary spirit…

There is a missionary spirit within the Chinese Catholic Church. And I could give you many examples. But our Church is still growing slowly and we are not capable of meeting every interest spreading in society. But we will do a better job at it. I am optimistic. I can personally say that in the last 20 years there have been changes for the better. This is the best time for evangelizing China. People have never been so open to and in favor of the Christian faith. 

China is undergoing a change in generations. Do you trust that young bishops will the lead the Church well into the future?

In ten years there will be only very young bishops leading the Chinese Church. I won't be there, but I have well-founded hopes that they will do a good job. And I believe the Lord will help them.

What can the Italian Church learn from that of China?

We are a Church caught among great difficulties and we realize that we do noy bear enough witness to Jesus Christ. We have nothing to offer the Church in Italy. We are still poor, we still need to receive help. I went to Italy in 1992 and visited Rome, its basilicas and the tombs of the apostles. Rome is so important, since it bears the testimony of the apostles, it is the site of early Christianity. This is the glory for Italian Catholics, who have always kept their Catholic faith, ever-faithful to the Church and the pope. I hope we will continue to learn from the fidelity of Italian Catholics.

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See also
Mgr Anthony Li Duan, archbishop of Xian, dies at the age of 79
Mgr Li Duan died wearing the ring the Pope gave him
Mgr Anthony Li Duan (Profile)
Chinese bishops invited to the Synod remember Mgr Anthony Li Duan
New Bishop of Xi'an, approved by Rome and Beijing


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