December 18, 2016

2016 – A year that saw the Holy See and China building bridges

By Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo *
Credit: Flags of China and Vatican City. Credit: FreshStock via Shutterstock.
Credit: Flags of China and Vatican City. Credit: FreshStock via Shutterstock.

The latest meeting of Pope Francis' “Council of Cardinals” has just ended and, according to Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke, “missionary impulse” was one of two guiding principles for the reform of the Curia.

The “missionary impulse” has underlined the papacy of Francis even before he was elected to the See of Peter. In the speech that the then Cardinal Bergoglio gave in the pre-conclave General Congregations of Cardinals, he stated his vision of the Church as the one “which evangelizes and comes out of herself” with the very specific mission to go to the “existential peripheries” and gain life “from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

The year 2016 will close with significant development in the relationship between the Holy See and the world’s largest nation, China. With a population of close to 1.4 billion – one fifth of the world’s population – it looms high on the list of Pope Francis’ priorities. The stance of the Holy See is to move prudently and thoughtfully towards normal relations with China. As for China, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stated in October that the nation is “sincere” in its efforts to improve bilateral ties with the Vatican, speaking of “effective channels for constructive dialogue.”

This past year has seen dialogue on the official level with a Vatican delegation visiting Beijing and meeting high ranking officials of the State run “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association” and Chinese Catholic Bishops' Conference. The key point of the dialogue is to reach an accord on the thorny issue of who appoints Bishops – the Supreme Pontiff or Beijing.

This issue needs to be understood against the background of the chequered and sometimes complicated history of Church-State relations in China. Religious missionaries entered China from Europe in the 13th century, beginning with the Franciscans. They were followed by the Jesuits three hundred years later, who contributed much to Chinese society through inter-cultural scientific and artistic exchanges. Their approach was epitomized by Matteo Ricci, who attracted the Imperial Court through discourse on western technology and learning. Dominicans from the Philippines came to China, too, in the mid-17th century. Following the expulsion of missionaries from China in the late 17th and early 18th centuries due to a dispute over Confucian rituals concerning the deceased, it was the French who provided the next significant wave of clergy by sending priests from France. Beginning with Pope Benedict XV, relations with the Chinese Government improved and in 1943, following significant efforts by Pope Pius XII, the Chinese regime established diplomatic ties with the Vatican.

All of this was to change just six years later in light of the takeover of the country by the Communist Party. The persecution of Catholics began in earnest and missionaries were expelled. In 1956, the Government founded the “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association,” known as the “official Church” because its members are loyal to the Communist led Government, which appoints its Bishops. It is closely monitored by the “State Administration for Religious Affairs” (“SARA”).     

For Catholics who choose to remain loyal to Rome, particularly in terms of the juridical authority of the Pope to appoint Bishops autonomously, a so called “underground” Church has emerged with its own Bishops (currently about 30), priests and lay faithful. The difficult conditions under which they operate is well known.   

In this state of affairs, is there a way forward? There certainly needs to be. In a nation of 1.4 billion, the number of Catholics, both “official” and “underground” has remained stagnant at just some 12 million. Evangelicals are growing at a much faster rate given their autonomous structure. Catholics, “official” and “underground,” including the Bishops, are yearning for communion with the See of Peter. Many see the possibility of great common good on so many levels – religious, moral, social and environmental – that can come from improved relations between the Holy See and China.

Pope Francis has spoken much of the “culture of encounter” and the need to “build bridges” through dialogue.

“Official” dialogue is continuing through a “step by step” approach focused on the appointment of Bishops. In August, a Vatican delegation met with some of the eight Bishops in China who do not have Vatican approval with a view to reconciliation. This included Bishop Ma Yinglin, the Bishop of Kunming in the Yunnan Province. Both the meeting and dialogue represented a significant step forward. Ma is President of the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Vice-President of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, both of which fall under SARA. Moreover, such meetings had previously been impeded by the Chinese authorities.  

Other more “unofficial” efforts are also producing great fruit.

For seven years, a three man team from a Catholic charitable organization based in the United States – “Caritas in Veritate” – has been traveling to Mainland China to offer a “theological forum” to Bishops from all over China at the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference. The team offers an aggiornamento of Church teaching, as well as theological and spiritual conferences. This past August, almost like a precursor to the official dialogue that ensued just days later, much of the teaching revolved around the Jubilee Year of Mercy and Amoris Laetitia. “The Chinese Bishops have been encouraged by Pope Francis and the Year of Mercy and the implications for the normalization of the relationship between the Church in China and the Holy See,” Mr. Henry Cappello, President of Caritas in Veritate, told CNA. “With Pope Francis’ continued call for forgiveness, in the spirit of the Year of Mercy, Catholics, both official and underground, have great expectations for a dawning of a new era.”
Indeed, the urgency of “a new era” seems to be gaining momentum on both sides. In the course of the Forum, the Bishops indicated the problems facing the Church in China and areas where help is needed. These included the rapid decrease in priestly and religious vocations; the lack of adequate priestly formation; problems facing marriage preparation and ongoing support for young married couples. Might structures be set up in the future – perhaps through web conferences – to assist in areas such as priestly formation and marriage preparation drawing on expertise from both sides? Such assistance would benefit the Church and China. Not only for the importance of family life – China recently changed its “one child” policy, an indication of the value it attaches to family life – some 30 of China’s 100 plus dioceses remain without Bishops and a similar number are beyond the age of retirement, demonstrating the urgent need for solid priestly formation for China’s future Church leaders.
There have been positive moves from the Chinese side, too. Last September, a delegation from the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation took part in a consultation on “Laudato Si,” organized jointly by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In a speech delivered by the Foundation, hearty acknowledgment was given to Pope Francis for “describing the destruction of our environment as a sin … as Pope Francis preaches in word and example, the resolve to live differently should affect our various contributions to shaping the culture and society in which we live.”
Might these efforts signal a new page in the relations between the Holy See and China through the “culture of encounter” that Pope Francis speaks about? No one is ignoring such pertinent issues as the sufferings endured by Christians even to the point of martyrdom and the relationship with Taiwan. But, on the heels of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, perhaps the “culture of encounter” is the step by step “missionary impulse” that is needed at this time for reconciliation in and with a nation so rich in culture – spurred on by a Jesuit Pope and reflecting the approach of his confrères 400 years ago. All of this must be tread carefully, with great respect and a spirit of communion on both sides. It involves “building bridges” in the words of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who, as Secretary of State, prudently oversees the Holy See’s relationship with China, bridges that are ordered only toward “the good of Chinese Catholics, to the good of the entire Chinese people, and to the harmony of the whole society, in favor of world peace.”      
As one independent and seasoned observer, well acquainted with both the Holy See and China, put it just days ago: “I may have mentioned to you the experience I was blessed to have been given in Rome more than a decade ago when I chanced to have had eye contact with the members of an orchestra and could observe in great intimacy the interaction between the individual musician and the conductor. A few days ago in China, I was once again afforded the same opportunity and could once again observe the overall direction given by the leader and that support given to the individual player when the conductor felt it was needed but more often when the musician himself felt the need and looked to his leader for guidance and support.” 

Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark. He has a Doctorate in Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and a license in Spirituality from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Rome. He has served in the Vatican Curia, in seminary formation both in Rome and the United States and oversaw the Catholic mission at Seton Hall University, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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