This is not the first time that there have been tensions about Chinese Catholics participating in World Youth Day.
Fr. Cervellera recalls the “World Youth Day Manila in 1995, in which John Paul II said that Asia is our common mission for the third millennium.”
“Youth from China were invited, and they started celebrating the Masses and all the meetings with other youth in Manila, but … some members of the Patriotic Association were with these youths. They did everything to detach these young people. I was there and they practically tried to avoid the relationship with other Catholics of the world,” he said.
Seminary formation is another arena in which Chinese authorities have attempted to lessen “foreign influence.”
“Formation also has become difficult, not because there are no seminaries, but because these seminaries are always controlled,” Cervellera said.
“For example, some aspects, social doctrine of the Church, are not taught or some parts of the social doctrine of the Church are not taught. The Patriotic Association says which books can be used, which cannot be used. There is a kind of reduction of the number of foreign professors who can go to the seminaries.”
He pointed out that one seminary in China that had 23 foreign professors during Benedict XVI’s pontificate now only has three professors from outside of China.
“The Communist Party, the Patriotic Association, tries to have an independent Church and mentality,” he said, adding that this cuts off future priests from the “richness of the Catholic Church [in the] universality of its teaching.”
Our Lady of Sheshan
For those who would like to support Catholics in China, Fr. Cervellera underlined the importance of prayer.
“We talk a lot about the New Silk Road. But the real Silk Road is the prayer road, the road of prayer, the road of pilgrimage because this can change China [for the] better,” Cervellera said.
The missionary priest said that he finds it strange that not many dioceses have held local celebrations for the World Day of Prayer for the Church in China established by Benedict XVI to take place each year on May 24.
This date is the feast of Mary, Help of Christians, on which thousands of Chinese Catholics used to make a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Sheshan, which was banned again this year weeks before the organized diocesan gatherings to celebrate a century of the Chinese Communist Party took place.
The local government cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for barring the pilgrimage, but Chinese Catholics pointed out that the nearby amusement park and other tourist spots near Sheshan hill were open at the time.
Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai has been living under house arrest since 2012 after he publicly resigned from the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association after his ordination.
Even before the Sheshan basilica was closed in 2020 because of the pandemic, Chinese authorities took steps in 2019 to prevent underground Catholic groups from organizing pilgrimages to Sheshan and required pilgrims to the Marian shrine to sing the national anthem.
Cervellera said that the Communist Party fears the interior freedom that religion can bring.
“University students, they are very interested in Catholicism and in Christianity, also Protestant Christianity. I think this is why the Chinese government now tries to stop the religious education for youth, because they fear an increase of conversions,” he said.
Fr. Cervellera ended his tenure as editor-in-chief of AsiaNews in June and announced that he would be continuing his missionary work with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Asia.
“As soon as somebody discovers his or her relationship with God, this makes them free, makes them free to speak, makes them free to criticize, makes them free to not to be obliged to do all the things that the Communist Party does. And this is the fear of the Communist Party, that people can be free,” he said.
Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.