My question concerns travel to China. What is the best way to meet the Sunday obligation to attend Mass? Any visible churches are part of the Catholic Patriotic Association controlled by China and not in communion with Rome. Should we skip Mass altogether? Should we attend the services available but not receive Communion? I'm assuming Communion at these churches would not be valid. I know some bishops and priests in the Patriotic Association have secretly reconciled with Rome, but we would have no way of knowing who that would be. Also, it would be difficult and foolish to try to find Mass at an underground church. We never miss Mass when we travel but I'm not sure what the best course of action would be in this case. Any guidance you could give would be helpful.
The situation of the Catholic Church in China is complex and ambiguous, and Benedict XVI recognizes that. So let me offer some clear advice and then an explanation. First, you should not skip Mass altogether. If you can safely attend Sunday Mass celebrated by an “underground” priest who is loyal to Rome, that could be your first option. But you should not assume that a cleric who is recognized by the Chinese civil authority is not united to Rome. You can in good conscience, attend Mass celebrated by a priest or bishop who is a member of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, if you can not find anything else. It is not clear that the sacraments are invalid; nor is it clear that they are not in union with Rome.
For example, Benedict XVI invited at least two bishops from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to attend the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in Rome in 2005; and in 2006 Beijing cooperated with the Holy See in the naming of a new bishop. To this point Benedict XVI wrote in 2007: “The lay faithful too, who are animated by a sincere love for Christ and for the Church, must not hesitate to participate in the Eucharist celebrated by Bishops and by priests who are in full communion with the Successor of Peter and are recognized by the civil authorities.”
Those who “are recognized by the civil authorities” are members of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and you can assume they are in communion with Rome unless you are certain that they are not.
It is true that some bishops have been consecrated without papal approval. Benedict XVI addresses this point in his letter to the Catholic church in China: “Finally, there are certain Bishops – a very small number of them – who have been ordained without the Pontifical mandate and who have not asked for or have not yet obtained, the necessary legitimation. According to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, they are to be considered illegitimate, but validly ordained, as long as it is certain that they have received ordination from validly ordained Bishops and that the Catholic rite of episcopal ordination has been respected. Therefore, although not in communion with the Pope, they exercise their ministry validly in the administration of the sacraments, even if they do so illegitimately.” (2007) Therefore, you can assume the sacraments celebrated by any cleric who is also part of the CCPA is a valid sacrament.
As business with China increases, this question will be more frequently asked. It is true, that the Church in China is divided, but it’s not really the fault of the Catholics in China, and it is not the desire of Rome. It is the result of the Chinese communist government’s intolerance of foreign intervention. China regards the Roman Catholic Church as a foreign body, and does not recognize the “separation of Church and State” as we do in the USA. For that reason, China reserves to itself the right to appoint bishops. Nor is China is the first country to do this. Back in the middle ages, the Holy Roman Emperor arrogated to himself the right to appoint local bishops and that contentious chapter of Church-State relations is known as the “lay-investiture” crisis, which reached its peek in 1075 between Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV.
Many Chinese Catholics have suffered brutal persecution because of their allegiance to Rome. Even foreign Catholic priests and bishops have been persecuted and imprisoned in China, most notably the Maryknoll Bishop James Walsh.
Rev. Francis J. Hoffman, JCD (Fr. Rocky) is Executive Director of Relevant Radio. Ordained as a priest for Opus Dei in 1992 by Blessed John Paul II, he holds a doctorate in Canon Law from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, an MBA from the University of Notre Dame, and a BA in History from Northwestern University. His Question and Answer column appears in several Catholic newspapers and magazines across the country.