The Vatican has announced that Benedict XVI’s long awaited letter to Catholics in China will be released on Saturday at noon. The letter is part of the Holy Father’s plan to address the situation of Catholics who have been divided by the government’s attempts to control the Church there.
The current situation of division began in 1951 when the officially atheist Communist Party took power and forced Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican. Presently, worship is allowed only in the government-controlled churches which are not allowed to acknowledge the leadership of the Pope. Millions of Chinese, however, belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.
Benedict has been reaching out to Beijing in an effort to restore diplomatic ties and unite China's estimated 12 million faithful. The Chinese government and the Vatican have remained divided over the government’s refusal to allow the Pope to appoint bishops and to exercise his papal authority.
Benedict's decision to address Chinese Catholics in a letter came out of high-level talks on China at the Vatican in January.
The Vatican statement on the letter, issued yesterday, provided a general indication of the letter’s contents by speaking of the interest in pursuing "respectful and constructive dialogue" with the government while paying tribute to those Catholics who have suffered for their loyalty to the pope.
Vatican watchers have said they expect the pope will stress the unity of the Catholic Church in the document, which Italian news reports said would be about 28 pages long and read like a mini-encyclical.
The reaction of the Beijing government and the underground faithful will be vitally important. Some underground priests have already expressed resentment about the pope's outreach to the government and the official church, according to the “official” bishop of Shanghai, Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian.
According to the International Herald Tribune’s source, Agostino Giovagnoli, a commentator on Vatican-China relations, "There will be two different reactions." The underground bishops may resent the pope's recognition of the fact that many "official" bishops who were consecrated without Rome's consent have since reconciled with the Holy See, he said.
"Maybe the reaction of the official bishops will be better," he said.
Benedict made clear from the outset of his papacy two years ago that improving relations with China was a key priority.
He has sent envoys to Beijing to sound out the government on the possibility of restoring ties, and he invited four Chinese bishops — from the official and underground churches — to a meeting of the world's bishops in 2005. Beijing did not let any of the four attend.