Archbishop Joseph Li Shan of Beijing stressed the importance of building unity between Chinese Catholics across the mainland and Hong Kong by promoting Catholic spirituality and evangelization efforts in line with the process of sinicization following his three-day visit to Hong Kong.

Sinicization is a process by which religious practice is enculturated into the context of Chinese society so that it is assimilated within the local customs, styles, and language. However, for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) it has come to take on a new, political dimension whereby religious belief and practice are modified in order to fit into the framework of the party’s ideology.

“We pray that under the guidance of the revelation of the Holy Spirit of God, under the direction of the spirit of the Church’s communion, and under the diligent exploration of all of us, the Chinese Church will be able to promote the work of evangelization and spirituality along the direction of sinicization,” Li said after his Nov. 13-15 visit.

Li’s much-anticipated visit was important as it marked the first time China’s top mainland bishop visited Hong Kong. Cardinal Stephen Chow extended the invitation after his own visit to Beijing from April 17-21, which was the first time since the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese in 1997 that the bishop of Hong Kong visited the mainland.

The visit also was significant because of tensions between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China following the unilateral appointment by China of several bishops, a breach of the terms of the Sino-Vatican Accord, which was renewed for the second time in 2022.

Li’s comments opened the theological conference “The Synodal Church and the Church in China: Communion, Participation, Mission” on the final day of his visit.

“The Church should keep abreast of the times and promptly adjust the focus, methods, and modes of evangelization as society develops and progresses. It should strive to fulfill its proper functions, engage in social responsibility, and pay attention to people’s livelihoods,” Li said, the Diocese of Hong Kong’s news outlet, The Sunday Examiner, reported.

Prior to the conference, on Nov. 15, Li concelebrated Mass with Cardinal Stephen Chow and Cardinal John Tong Hon, 84, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Cardinal Joseph Zen, 91, also bishop emeritus of the region, who has been a vocal opponent of the Sino-Vatican Agreement, was not present.

Ahead of Li’s visit to Hong Kong, Zen wrote: “Never consecrate a bishop without permission. Sacraments can be sacrificed, but faith cannot be sacrificed! Remember! Remember!”

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During the Mass, Chow expressed his desire for communion among Chinese Catholics.

“This is a Church of communion, a Church of the Chinese people. So, with thankfulness, we ask that Jesus Christ Our Lord bless our hearts and our efforts,” Chow said.

Chow has placed a great deal of importance on dialogue between the mainland and Hong Kong, describing the latter as a “bridge Church” at a Nov. 4 Mass of thanksgiving for his elevation to the College of Cardinals.

“That means we are connected with the Church in China, with the Beijing Archdiocese in China. That is important, because we know each other, that we exist,” he said.

In a May interview with the Italian Jesuit publication La Civilta Cattolica, Chow spoke about sinicization, highlighting some of the issues it presents for the Church and suggesting that dialogue is critical for better understanding the concept and its application.

“My impression is that the Church on the mainland is still grappling with what sinicization should mean for them,” he said. “It has not reached a definitive conclusion at this point in time. Therefore it should be meaningful for us to dialogue with them via seminars, so that we can also share with them the meaning and implications of ‘inculturation,’ which certainly addresses some of their concerns about sinicization. And we are learning from them what sinicization can mean for them.”