04/11/2011, 00.00
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Vatican Commission on Church in China meets. Expectations and realism

by Bernardo Cervellera
From now until April 13 the Commission called by Benedict XVI meets. The situation of Chinese Catholic community after the slap in the face from Beijing with the illicit ordination of Chengde and the patriotic assembly a few months ago. The broken dreams of diplomatic relations, the urgent need to support the official and underground Christian communities. Enhancing the work of the bridge – Churches in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - From now until April 13, the Vatican Commission for the Church in China is in session. Set up by Benedict XVI in 2007 after the release of his letter, it focuses on the Churches’ concerns for the Chinese community and at the same time tries to guide the life of the faithful in the difficult situation of persecution. Simultaneously, the Commission is exploring ways in which to mature diplomatic relations with Beijing.

In previous annual meetings the topics discussed were the Pope's letter, the formation of seminarians, nuns and priests. Today's meeting, according to the Vatican press office, focuses on "the pastoral situation of ecclesiastical districts in China, with particular reference to the challenges encountered by the Church in embodying the Gospel in the current social and cultural conditions."

The brief statement hides a painful reality on which the Members of the Commission are at present divided. It regards Beijing’s slap in the face with the illicit ordination of the bishop of Chengde (see photos and Chengde 20/11/2010: Chengde, eight bishops in communion with Pope participate in illicit ordination) and the Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives (09/12 / 2010 Assembly elects new leadership, causing major harm to the Church), in November and December: Despite the many sermons on the détente between China and the Holy See and despite the blind optimism of various Vatican personalities, China in fact decreed that it will allow Episcopal elections only if candidates are those chosen by Beijing which aims to use bishops at will in support of its policy, eliminating even the smallest space for religious freedom asked for by the pope in his letter (see n. 4 "[The Church] can not and must not replace the State. But it can not and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice").

Beijing's aggressive moves have also closed the door on attempts at reconciliation between official and underground communities, which John Paul II and Benedict XVI were so patiently mending. To date, the president of the Council of official bishops' (not recognized by the Vatican because of the lack of underground bishops) is an illicit bishop, Ma Yinglin. The chairman of the Patriotic Association (an organization not in line with Catholic teaching, because it aims to build a Church independent of the pope) is a bishop approved by the pope, Mgr. Fang Xinyao. This puts many of the 65 official bishops in a situation of near-schism and inhibits the 38 underground bishops from showing unity and reconciliation with them, deeply desired by the pope.

In the Vatican there are those who call for canonical decision on the behaviour of some official bishops (especially Mgr. Fang Xinyao), speaking of "excommunication," but explaining that "excommunication" as a disciplinary decision is not a final one. It serves as an invitation to reflect on his actions and help nurture and love his bonds with the pope, rather than the peace and prosperity that submission to the Party guarantees.

There are also those who want to skim-over the latest episodes, without making any decisions, confident in the dialogue with the regime and blaming Maoist fringes for the recent actions against the Church. In fact, throughout China there is an escalation of repression against Catholics, Protestants and human rights activists (often Protestant believers), because of Beijing’s terror of a "jasmine revolution". Persecution and control are therefore the tools of the entire leadership, not only one part.

Official and underground Christians in China tell AsiaNews that the Vatican "must not be blackmailed with diplomatic relations." They argue that the Vatican authorities, long desirous of establishing official relationships, are ready to "sell out" to Chinese power. "At the moment China has no interest in establishing these diplomatic relations – confides a Hebei faithful - and so it is best that the Holy See is committees its energies to strengthening unity and faith of the official and underground communities."

Underground Catholics point out that for years the Vatican seems to have put the underground faithful in brackets: many vacant sees have not had replacements and seminarians are asked to enter the official seminaries. Instead, they say, in order to strengthen the faith of the entire Church in China, the Holy See should go ahead on its own, without considering the opinion of the government, and in the name of the pastoral good of the faithful, ordain bishops and ordain priests even in the unofficial community. Perhaps the Catholic communities could learn from the underground Protestant communities that now, faced with the violence of the regime, appear in public to demand religious freedom. Some of them were arrested, but while they show the world that their only desire is to see the religious freedom implemented that the Chinese constitution preaches (without practising it).

Then to strengthen the relationship between the Church in China and the Universal Church it is important to enhance the great efforts of so-called bridge-churches: those of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore. Through visits, reports, financial aid, sending teachers and religious personnel, they can comfort and help develop the life of the Chinese community, stifled by control or arrests.

In recent days, two events have reaffirmed the urgent need for a clear line in the Vatican Commission. An article in the Financial Times (04/08/2011) published notice of a meeting in Burgundy between senior Chinese Army representatives (PLA) and Vatican figures working on the China dossier. The article seems to suggest that the meeting was based on a re-opening of diplomatic channels between the Holy See and Beijing. In fact, according to information obtained by AsiaNews from a Vatican source, the meeting in the Palace of Burgundy had other purposes and the meeting between the Vatican figures (Mgr Balestrero and Msgr. Gianfranco Rota Graziosi) and some generals of the PLA were purely indirect, as well as fruitless.

On 6 April, however, Card. Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and pugnacious defender of religious freedom in China, met with the President of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican John Boehner. He expressed his "unequivocal support" for the cardinal's commitment to the Church and the religious freedom of all peoples". Boehner has called the Catholic Church "a beacon of hope for positive change and freedom in China."

The hope is that this time, the Vatican Commission meeting will reveal a clear and realistic vision of the relationship between church and state in China, which does not betray the sacrifice and the expectation of those who are loyal to the Pope in that country.

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