VATICAN CITY — It was dinnertime in Yongqiang parish on China's southeast coast. After celebrating Mass Oct. 27 for 600 Catholics to mark the end of the Year of the Eucharist, Father Shao Zhumin headed to a local restaurant along with four other priests, some religious and lay Catholics to mark the end of the special year with a peaceful dinner.

But it was not to be. Chinese security officers soon followed, arresting Father Shao, UCA News service reported. The remaining four priests were quietly hustled to safety through a kitchen and out a back door by their religious and lay friends. Another priest at the Mass, Father Paul Jiang Sunian, did not join the group for dinner but was stopped at a tollbooth on his way back to his parish.

Both he and Father Shao — members of the unofficial, underground Catholic Church — were detained in custody, having earlier been observed talking to a foreign journalist for the Italian magazine L’Espresso.

The continued harassment of Catholics in China is so extensive that it's often hard to believe that religion is, as one commentator put it, “on a roll” there or that formal relations might soon be established between Beijing and Rome. Priests continue to be imprisoned or disappear for refusing to join or opposing the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association of China, the country's “official” Catholic Church that is not in communion with the Holy See.

Bishops, such as Julius Jia Zhiguo of Hebei province who runs an underground orphanage, are repeatedly arrested for the same reason. And last month, four Chinese bishops, three of whom belong to the official Church, were refused exit visas to attend the Synod on the Eucharist in Rome.

Bishops’ Ordinations

Yet amid the continuing persecutions, there are also signs of improving relations. In October, two Chinese bishops were ordained into the official church with the explicit approval of both Rome and Beijing (China usually forbids Vatican appointment of bishops).

Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong said Oct. 21 that the ordinations have were unique in that the government did not pressure Church leaders to keep the Vatican's approval a secret, “so I think this is a breakthrough.”

“As far as I know, first came the appointment by the Pope, and then the local bishop tried to help this candidate be elected by the clergy, by the people, and then the government has no choice but to recognize, to accept, to approve” that bishop, he said.

Said Bishop Zen, “I hope the government draws conclusions from the facts. It's futile to be rigid on their position, because they must see they're losing control.”

Last month, in an article in the influential Jesuit publication Civilta Cattolica, Father Hans Waldenfels said that, after visiting China in June, he had discerned “signs of a future understanding” between China and the Vatican and reported that the official and underground Churches are increasingly operating in harmony.

His assessment is backed up by Bishop Zen who believes that up to 85% of government-approved bishops have reconciled with Rome. “There is nothing confrontational between the two churches,” he told Vatican Radio Oct. 19. “In general, they coexist peacefully because the division is not created by Catholics, it's created by the government — they are both victims of the government.”

However, Joseph Kung of the Stamford, Conn.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation was skeptical of reports of progress. He believes that for authentic unity to materialize, there must be changes to China's constitution.

“How can there be unity when we know it [the official Church] is not in communion because they have a constitution in which it states they have autonomy from the Pope and the Church of Rome?” he asked.

Like other experts on China, he believes the Chinese government must abandon its insistence on a state-controlled church. Furthermore, like other Sino-Vatican watchers, he considers China's insistence that the Vatican must break diplomatic relations with Taiwan before dialogue can begin to be merely a smokescreen intended to prevent reform (cutting relations with Taiwan has never been a precondition for dialogue with China in the past).

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state, told reporters Oct. 26 that while the Vatican is ready to make concessions over Taiwan, guarantees of religious freedom must come first. The Church, he said, must be “undivided” and civil governments “do not have the right to tell men and women how to live their faith.”

For Kung, the government must also release all Catholics jailed for their faith. So far, he said, “there has been no indication in that direction.”

Nevertheless, the evidence appears overwhelming that Chinese Catholics are becoming more united as the official church increasingly acknowledges Rome's authority. A further positive sign is an increase in religious fervor and the continued overall advance of Christianity, considered the country's fastest growing religion.

This presents a serious dilemma for Chinese authorities. Beijing's communist leaders have long feared that religious freedom would bring social chaos. But today, many fear their society is careening towards catastrophe for another reason.

Fifty-six years of state-driven Marxist atheism has left China bereft of ideological, moral and religious beliefs with which to balance the rampant consumerism that has been fostered by the explosive economic growth of recent years.

So now, instead of viewing religion as a threat, some leaders think it might actually bring stability. Not all are convinced, however. While some members of the government are pushing for more openness with the Vatican, and have succeeded to a degree — “conversations” between China and the Vatican began in June — Stalinist stalwarts are putting up resistance, leading to the confusing signals from Beijing.

The current challenge, according to Father Bernardo Cervellera, director of Asia News and a former missionary in China, is to help the government understand what true religious freedom means and show them that it must exclude government control.

“China's leaders can no longer govern as if religion didn't exist,” said Father Cervellera, former director of the Vatican's missionary news service Fides. “They have to deal with it, and the sooner the better so they can have people who will cooperate with them rather than have religious populations as their enemies.”

Despite “lights and shadows” in China today, the country is at a “turning point,” Father Cervellera said. True religious freedom, he predicted, is “just a question of time.”

(CNS contributed to this report.) Edward Pentin writes from Rome.