BEIJING — Fides, the Vatican's missionary news agency reported in late October that it had received two positive responses from members of the underground Catholic Church to Pope John Paul II's recent “Message to the People of China” on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in Beijing.

And on Oct. 30, Zenit news agency reported that the Pope's remarks had also been received favorably by the Chinese government.

John Paul sent the message to the Chinese people Oct. 24, asking for forgiveness for past errors of the Church's children.

According to Fides, the reports from within China indicate that the Pope's comments were working to unite the rift between the underground Church, which professes loyalty to Rome, and the state-sanctioned Patriotic Catholic Association, which does not.

There are about 4 million adherents of the state-sanctioned Catholic association, while the number of members of the underground Church is estimated at 10 to 12 million by Joseph Kung, president of the Cardinal Kung Foundation. As well, reports from Church sources within China have indicated that up to two-thirds of the bishops in the Patriotic Association privately profess loyalty to the Vatican.

The first response to Fides came from a priest of the underground Church currently under house arrest and subject to strict police surveil-lance.

Said the priest, “When I heard the news [the Pope's words] I had a deep desire to kneel in front of him and thank him for the profound paternal love that he sent to us through the message on October 24. The Holy Father has united us, [Catholics, underground and official]. Only he has the strength, the courage, the ability to vivify the spirit of Christianity, that is love and truth.

“As he said in his message, we are not afraid to recognize the historical truth and to recognize our mistakes, indeed this can only help us to improve our mission in the future.”

The second communication to Fides was from an underground Catholic intellectual. “The Holy Father revealed our dignity as the people of China; he treated us with respect in a way that only he knows how,” the intellectual wrote. “I think that for all the Chinese people reactions can only be positive. Every Chinese man or women of good will and good sense will recognize the profound significance of this message and learn something from the Pope's gesture.”

Zenit reported Oct. 30 that the Chinese government had praised the Holy Father's remarks. However, the government also wants him to apologize for last year's canonization of 120 China martyrs.

Sun Yuxi, spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told a press conference that the Pope's request for forgiveness is a “positive sign.”

But, he added, “We see that the papal message does not include clear requests for pardon for the canonization of saints. We regret this.

“Prior to the [October 2000] canonization, there were already contacts to improve relations between China and the Vatican,” Sun explained. “However, the canonization has meant a new obstacle.” And he added, “We hope that the Vatican will take concrete measures to remove the obstacles in order to create a propitious atmosphere for the re-establishment of contacts and negotiations.”

John Paul II is willing to travel to China if this would help to normalize Vatican-Beijing relations, the secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, Archbishop Giuseppe Pittau, said in late October.

Last year Beijing protested the canonization of 120 martyrs, whom the Communist authorities regard as “criminals,” and stated that this “insult to the Chinese people” removed any possibility of rapprochement with the Vatican.

Resolvable Issues

Sun, the spokesman for China's foreign ministry, said at the Beijing press conference, “The Chinese government has always wanted to improve its relations with the Vatican, basing itself on two fundamental principles: non-interference in internal affairs with the pretext of religion, and recognition of the People's Republic of China as the only legitimate government for the whole of China, including Taiwan.”

Several Vatican officials, including Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Archbishop Pittau, have stated on repeated occasions that the second condition is easy to resolve. Vatican diplomatic representation had been in Beijing until 1957, when it had to move to Taiwan after the People's Republic severed its relations with Rome.

The first question referred to by Beijing is more difficult, since the Communist government believes the appointment of bishops by the Pope constitutes interference in China's “internal affairs.”

But Archbishop Pittau said that “John Paul II has already thought of technical solutions” to surmount this problem.

In Vietnam, for example, the Holy See presents a list of candidates for the governance of a diocese to the Communist government. The authorities choose the bishop that suits them most from the list.

John Paul's specific proposals for the Chinese situation will be proposed to Beijing as soon as the occasion presents itself, Archbishop Pittau said. And he added, “There is no issue that can separate us.”