Will Francis be the first pope to set foot on Chinese soil?

Popes have been trying to get to China since 1177. Francis wants to be the first

Pope Francis stops by a group of faithful from Shanghai during his weekly general audience in St Peter’s square at the Vatican. Photograph: Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Pope Francis stops by a group of faithful from Shanghai during his weekly general audience in St Peter’s square at the Vatican. Photograph: Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

 

Pope Francis has a China dream. No pope has ever set foot on Chinese soil and he hopes to be the first.

In September last year he signed a controversial accord with Beijing that the Holy See argued was a necessary pragmatic step to bringing Sino-Vatican relations onto a stable footing after decades of hostility and mistrust. But the move has been deeply unpopular with some Chinese Catholics and prompted accusations of selling out the church’s oppressed faithful.

In the wake of that agreement the report card to date seems to be very mixed, with continued reports of persecution blended with indicators of papal progress.

From 30,000 feet, the pope last week tried to take relations to a higher level as he flew through Chinese airspace.

“I send cordial greetings to your excellency as I fly over China on my way to Japan,” Francis wrote in a telegram to Chinese president Xi Jinping. “I assure you of my prayers for the nation and its people, invoking upon all of you abundant blessings of peace and joy.”

Speaking to reporters on the plane, the pontiff set out his stall.

“I really want to go to Beijing. I love China,” he said.

Responding from Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing appreciated the friendship and goodwill expressed by the pope, adding they were happy with recent progress made between the two powers.

“China is sincerely and actively promoting Sino-Vatican relations and is open and welcome to exchanges between the two sides,” he said.

The rapprochement is “deeply significant”, according to Francesco Sisci, an Italian writer based in Beijing who specialises in China-Vatican relations.

“It has taken decades to normalise relations, so it is quite something to get it to this point,” he said, “but the risks now for both sides are immense, so they will both move very cautiously.”

Popes have been trying to get to China since at least Alexander III in 1177, Sisci said.

“If Pope Francis does come to China, he will be fulfilling a wish of his predecessor some 800 years ago,” he said. “That would be a major breakthrough that would trump many other considerations.”

Party-run church

In 1951, shortly after Mao Zedong’s communist party seized power, the Holy See was forced out of China and the Vatican shifted its diplomatic allegiance to Taiwan. The atheist communist party then established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association in 1957 to oversee churches and appoint bishops and priests, causing a split and driving many practitioners underground.

Under the landmark agreement signed last year that aims to unite the country’s 12 million Catholics in the underground and state-run churches, the pontiff has final say on the appointment of bishops, but candidates will be selected from a pool vetted by Beijing.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, former Bishop of Hong Kong, speaks during a press conference at the Salesian House of Studies in Hong Kong. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong: ‘We have been persecuted since the very beginning, and the persecution is intensifying.’ Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images
How can you ask people to sign a document which contains something radically against our church? Incredible

A controversial element of the deal called on the Vatican to recognise seven living, excommunicated bishops who had been named by Beijing without papal consent, while also insisting two legitimate bishops step aside to make way for Beijing appointees.

While the full details of the agreement have not been released, a few days after it was signed the Holy See issued pastoral guidelines in China. The guidelines suggested that underground Catholics now register with the government, but it advised people to put in writing or state verbally if they opposed any elements in the documents they were asked to sign.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, a retired cleric from Hong Kong, is a long-term critic of the Chinese government and adamantly opposed to the new arrangement.

“How can you ask people to sign a document which contains something radically against our church? Incredible. That’s simply ridiculous. You sign a very bad document and then you just say that you are against it,” he told The Irish Times. “The important thing, the church now says, is your intention. Well, that’s all contrary to our teaching.”

The Vatican argues that now the Chinese government officially recognises the special role of the pope in the Catholic church the situation will improve for followers on the Chinese mainland. Cardinal Zen disagrees.

“We see all these years, since the beginning of the People’s Republic of China [in 1949] we have been persecuted since the very beginning, and the persecution is intensifying. This kind of justification, the optimism, is ridiculous,” the 87-year-old said.

Signing the government documents means you accept the leadership of the communist party in church matters, the cardinal said, and they include other elements such as prohibiting anyone under 18 years of age from participating in any religious activity. “How can they sign such a document?” he asked.

The Holy See does not insist its followers sign the document, but advises Catholics to follow their own conscience. Cardinal Zen believes that most will ultimately agree to join the official church, and offering this choice is part of the Vatican’s strategy to let the underground church fizzle out over a period of some years.

“They say we will not force your conscience but then they will let you die naturally, because long-term they won’t send new bishops to the underground churches. They won’t even give diocesan delegates because they say now all the bishops in the official church are legitimate,” said the cardinal, who has faced stern rebuke from the Vatican’s press office for his outspoken behaviour.

“But that means you want to annihilate the underground church. It is clear the intention. That’s incredible. That’s a crime.”

Sisci said that Cardinal Zen’s views were not shared by the majority in the church’s upper echelons.

“He is very vocal but his opinions are not the mainstream opinions,” he said. “Most other leaders are not criticising this decision because they believe it is a progressive move . . . the best way forward for the Holy See in a difficult situation.”

Inevitable suffering

Pope Francis said he understood there would be deep concern among the faithful about the agreement, but he said he took full responsibility for it and urged his followers to trust in the Vatican’s long-term strategy. He added that history was replete with occasions when the church had to negotiate with powerful forces and relinquish some authority for periods of time.

He called for prayers for “the suffering for those who do not understand, or who have so many years behind them of living clandestinely”.

Recognising that difficult times lay ahead for many believers, he said: “It’s true, they will suffer. There is always some suffering in an agreement.”

One of those in the crosshairs of the new deal is Monsignor Vincenzo Guo Xijin, bishop of the Mindong diocese in the southeastern province of Fujian. Last year a Vatican delegation visited him and asked him to accept a demotion under the new agreement, to become an auxiliary bishop and serve under the previously excommunicated Beijing-appointed bishop. He agreed to do so but has since been arrested and placed under house arrest on several occasions as local officials insist he also sign a document joining China’s patriotic church.

Bishop Guo (61) told the Vatican-affiliated news agency AsiaNews that the patriotic church declaration states the church is independent, “but the implication is that it is independent from Rome . . . Our principle is that the Chinese Catholic Church must have a connection with the Vatican, the connection cannot be severed.”

Christmas Eve mass at a Catholic church in Beijing in 2018. Photograph: Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images.
Christmas Eve mass at a Catholic church in Beijing in 2018. Photograph: Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images.

In the current stand-off, Bishop Guo is not allowed wear a mitre or hold his bishop’s staff at ceremonies, as authorities insist he wear the robes of a priest. Scores of priests who serve under him have also refused to join the patriotic church, and he declined to attend the dedication ceremony for the Beijing appointee.

“I am a man, not a monkey,” he told the news agency.

The second bishop asked to step aside by a papal delegation was 88-year-old Zhuang Jianjian from the southern city of Shantou. The Vatican envoys asked him to make way for Huang Bingzhang, an excommunicated bishop and a member of China’s legislative National People’s Congress.

“Bishop Zhuang had tears in his eyes when he heard the request,” Cardinal Zen said, who hand-carried a letter from the bishop to Pope Francis after the agreement was announced.

When in Rome

Arriving in Rome, the cardinal asked if he could discuss the details of the China deal with the pope and the person who had actually written the agreement.

“I said to him, I do not even know who drafted the document but can you call them to come, and we can both discuss in your presence about that document.”

On the pope’s behalf, an emissary told him two days later he should discuss the matter with Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state. Cardinal Zen responded he would rather return home empty-handed than discuss the agreement with Cardinal Parolin, a figure he had publicly criticised before.

“I told him in very unkind words that I am not going to talk to that man. For me he has no faith at all. He is doing the job of a mundane diplomat,” he said. “He gives more importance to the diplomatic success than to freedom and faith . . . I knew he was the one behind this agreement.”

The next day the pope sent an invite to Cardinal Zen to share supper with him and Cardinal Parolin. “It was very kind of him to invite me to supper, but you cannot call it just a supper,” he said.

Over the meal the latest developments in Hong Kong dominated the discussion, and it was only towards the end of the evening he got to bring up his objections to the China agreement.

“The Holy Father said, ‘I am going to look into the matter’. He didn’t say ‘now you and [Cardinal] Parolin talk and I will listen’, no. He just got up and saw me to the door and there was no chance to discuss. So, I hope he is going to look into the matter.”

Churches shuttered

Across the country there have been several reports in recent years – both before and after the agreement – of authorities removing crosses, demolishing or shuttering churches, detaining priests, prohibiting first holy communion ceremonies and banning online bible sales. In some cases in recent months local officials claimed they were operating with full Vatican support as they closed underground churches.

Other religions are also facing crackdowns in China. In the northwestern province of Xinjiang more than a million Muslims have been sent to detention camps without trial in recent years, where they undergo indoctrination in what the government calls counter-terrorism efforts in “vocational and educational training centres”.

At least 156 Tibetan Buddhists have self-immolated over the past decade in protest at the government’s oppressive policies against their religion and culture, often using their last words to call for the return of their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Many underground Protestant churches have also been shut down, with leaders and adherents arrested.

Sinicisation of religion

Beijing has been intensifying efforts to “sinicise” all the major religions in China, meaning they must support state ideology and support the communist party and its core values.

Outside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Chengdu, in the western province of Sichuan, large posters detail the government’s five-year plan for the sinicisation of Catholicism.

“The core of political identity is to consciously accept the leadership of the Communist Party of China and support the socialist system,” the posters say. “We should study and implement Xi Jinping’s new socialist ideology with Chinese characteristics, and enhance the confidence of God’s friends in the socialist road.”

The party are atheists, so their symbols are in some way seen as the symbols of the enemy

Catholics are urged to “guide the elders to establish and adhere to the correct historical, national and cultural views”.

With regard to church architecture, interior design and the hymns and music performed at ceremonies, practitioners should “change the idea that these must be western in style” and look to implement Chinese aesthetic values, the plan states.

Pragmatic move

Along with all the government posters, a Chinese national flag flies outside the bishop’s house. One churchgoer said he did not like the state’s presence felt around the cathedral, but it was a necessary part of the compromise.

“The party are atheists, and they have repressed the church for many years, so their symbols are in some way seen as the symbols of the enemy,” he said. “But we are in China, we must have their support to develop; now we have a new deal. The pragmatic thing to do is just to accept it and move on.”

The new agreement would enable the Vatican to rebuild the church’s structure in China, he said.

“Because Rome could not be here officially before, it was real chaos in some places. Some priests were doing whatever they wanted. Now the Vatican can organise things much better, get more disciplined.”

The official repression seemed to only happen in some areas where the underground church was very strong and challenged the local government, he said.

The government does not want to control the church. The government wants the church under control

“I have heard of bad incidents, but for us in Sichuan there has not been a problem. The government leaves us alone here,” he said.

Another practising Catholic in Chengdu said the agreement alleviated a major concern for them.

“For years the greatest fear for Catholics was the patriotic church would send bishops to our diocese that were not recognised by the pope,” he said. “Now we do not have to worry about that. That is a major step forward.”

He was not concerned the government was trying to take over the church. “The government does not want to control the church. The government wants the church under control,” he said.

Writing in his book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao, author Ian Johnson said “we can expect more feints and thrusts from the government and growing debate among officials about how to handle religion in the new era. But in the long run, I doubt the government will try to achieve total control, in part because recent history – the Cultural Revolution, for example – shows officials how oppression can actually encourage real faith.”

Cardinal Zen said that while the official church would survive, the underground church’s days appeared numbered.

“The government now are persecuting them one by one, every day saying ‘sign the document, sign the document’, and they say ‘no, we can’t in our conscience’. Underground Catholics are all in despair now. They are going to be destroyed completely. Many people will join the official church but all the rest will disappear in a few years.”

Some feel doubt and perplexity, while others sense themselves somehow abandoned by the Holy See

Despite continued persecution of underground prelates, Pope Francis said there had been progress and there were signs the church was beginning to unify. He said he had received many letters displaying the “martyr-like faith” of followers and their willingness to accept the Vatican decision.

Suggesting Rome’s China dream wasn’t built in a day, he asked for patience.

In some cases, underground bishops and bishops from the patriotic church were already working together, he said, and “for me, this is a signal”.

“Some feel doubt and perplexity, while others sense themselves somehow abandoned by the Holy See,” he said.

But “had Abraham demanded ideal social and political conditions before leaving his land, perhaps he would never have set out.”

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