For that reason, he said, making a concession for the sake of a deal is "likely the step that's needed to show that the Church isn't interested in overthrowing the Chinese government."
Referring to recent statements made by Cardinal Joseph Zen, Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong and a leading opponent of the deal, Fr. Cervellera told CNA that "this agreement is an agreement that doesn't 'sell' the Church," but depending on how much the Vatican is willing to concede, could place the Church's fate "completely in the hands of the government."
Cervellera pointed to a government crackdown on religion, involving a stricter enforcement of rules which, as of Feb. 1, ban anyone under 18 from attending religious services. It's also now forbidden to hold any sort of youth group activity, even if it's not held at a church, he said.
Cervellera said that a fellow priest had observed that the government "has turned churches into a special type of 'nightclub' only for adults."
If young people are removed from religion, he said, "you are practically condemning religions to death," and this "was always the project of the Chinese Communist Party, always. Because the Patriotic Association was born to control religions so that little by little...they die from suffocation."
On the other hand, he said, a deal Vatican deal with the government on appointing bishops could "facilitate the Vatican in deciding the candidates without problems, and help (with) the daily management of the Church," he said.
But if the Vatican doesn't insist on more breathing room, "both the official and the underground, the Church will continue being suffocated. Because what is lacking is religious freedom."
On Monday a group of 15 influential Chinese Catholics, most of whom are from Hong Kong, wrote an open letter to bishops' conferences around the world voicing their opposition to the deal, saying the government should have no role in choosing bishops and warned of schism should an accord be reached.
The signatories, which include Hong Kong politicians, university professors, lecturers, researchers, lawyers and human rights activists, specifically referenced the seven "illicit" bishops in question, saying "they do not have the trust of the faithful, and have never repented publicly."
"If they were to be recognized as legitimate, the faithful in Greater China would be plunged into confusion and pain, and schism would be created in the Church in China."
However, on Sunday, Feb. 11, Bishop Joseph Guo Xijin of the Mindong Diocese – one of the bishops asked to step down by the Vatican delegation in 2017 – said he would be willing to step aside in favor of government-backed Bishop Zhan Silu, who was formerly excommunicated by Rome.
(Story continues below)
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According to the New York Times, Bishop Guo – who has placed in detention multiple times and is currently living under police surveillance – said he would respect any agreement that is reached, and that if he were presented with an official, verifiable Vatican document asking for his resignation, "then we must obey Rome's decision."
"Our consistent stand is to respect the deal made between the Vatican and the Chinese government," he said, explaining that "the Chinese Catholic Church must have a connection with the Vatican; the connection cannot be severed."
Though he would respect any deal that is reached, Guo also cautioned that there is still hesitancy on the part of Chinese authorities to let the Vatican have a final say over Catholic spiritual life, and that while they might not explicitly say the local Church has to "disconnect" from Rome, this has at times been implied.
What the Chinese authorities don't realize, he said, is that by having the local Church cut ties with the universal Church would make Chinese Catholics "second-class believers," because Catholics in other countries get to have a say in the rules that govern the global Church, whereas Chinese faithful don't.
Guo said he at one point told the Chinese government that "when you restrict churches in China to contact Rome, in fact you are slapping your own face...We need to participate so that the Chinese voice" is not lost, but is heard within the universal Church.
However, despite recent crackdowns and a lingering reluctance on the part of the government, Guo said he believes restrictions on Catholics have loosened, and "the government is gradually opening up to it."