Rome Synod to Unite China Bishops

ROME — Are Beijing and Rome moving closer together? News of a Chinese delegation to a Vatican synod makes some think so.

Pope Benedict XVI invited four mainland Chinese bishops from both the government-run Catholic association and the underground Church to attend the Oct. 2-23 Synod on the Eucharist in Rome

The Holy See and the communist government of the People's Republic of China currently don't have diplomatic relations, though many hope for reconciliation. The invitation was described as “obviously a harmonious sign” by a Chinese religious official. The government has not indicated whether it will approve the travel of any or all of the bishops.

At first, Beijing seemed to reject the invitation, citing advanced age and poor health of three of the bishops as well as the Holy See's continuing official ties with Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province. According to China's official Xinhua news agency, an unnamed official of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association said the invitation showed no respect for China and its Catholic population.

Later, the director of the country's State Bureau of Religious Affairs said the government was still negotiating with the Vatican. The official, Ye Xiaowen, said mainland Catholics saw the Pope's invitation as a “friendly gesture.”

But he added that some of the bishops likely would not be able to make the trip. One, Archbishop Anthony Li Duan of Xian, was terminally ill with cancer, he said. He also said he did not consider underground Bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar a prelate.

Speculation about relations between the Vatican and the government intensified after a Sept. 20 speech by Archbishop Claudio Celli. The former Vatican diplomat specializing in Asia, said the Vatican “is ready to begin a constructive dialogue with Chinese authorities tomorrow, or rather, this very night.”

Formerly a top official in the Vatican Secretariat of State, Archbishop Celli is now secretary of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See. He made the statement in Rome while accepting an award for furthering relations between China and Europe. While formal negotiations have not begun, “contacts have existed for several years” between the Vatican and China, said the archbishop, who added that the government would have to ensure full religious freedom before relations could begin.

The fidelity of Chinese Catholics to the Holy See is one of many issues both sides must address. The Chinese government created the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association soon after the communists took power in 1949. China regulates the practice of all religions and requires bishops and priests to register before engaging in public or parish ministry. The Patriotic Association recognizes the pope as a religious leader but does not acknowledge his authority over the Church in China.

Over the years, China has persecuted the underground Church with beatings and long imprisonments of bishops, priests and laypeople who proclaim loyalty to the Holy See and practice their faith in violation of the nation's law.

The Holy See is aware of the sharp division between those who have registered with the Patriotic Association and those who have refused to renounce allegiance to Rome, but hope to reconcile Chinese Catholics with each other and with Rome. China experts say the divisions have softened in recent years as news has spread that many of the bishops who have registered with the government have also sought and received approval from the Holy See.

“It is a very complex situation that is not easy to understand,” said Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missionaries Father Bernardo Cervellera, editor of the Rome-based agency Asia News.

The mainland bishops invited to the synod are Aloysius Jin Lu Xian of Shanghai, who is 89, and Anthony Li Duan of Xian, 78, both of whom are registered with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Bishop Luke Li Jingfeng of Fenxiang, 85, is another. He is an underground bishop who was recognized last year by the government as the official head of his diocese without registering with the Patriotic Association.

A young underground bishop, Joseph Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar, 47, will also attend. Bishop Wei has been detained by the government on a number of occasions but has always returned to preach and celebrate Mass.

There is a specific symbolism in the Pope inviting the bishops to a Eucharistic synod, said Father Cervellera.

“The Eucharist is the one body of Christ, and the Church the united body of Christ,” he told the Register. “The Vatican is sending a message that a united Church in China under the Pope is a matter of religion and theology and not of politics.”

Some supporters of the underground Church disagree.

They insist that formal relations should not be set up before the communists release all bishops, priests and laypersons presently imprisoned for their faith.

“I personally do not see how relations can be accomplished without first releasing all the prisoners and exonerating all those who have been unjustly charged with crimes simply for remaining loyal to the Holy See,” said Joseph Kung, president of the Cardinal Kung Foundation, based in Stamford, Conn. He is the nephew of Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, who was head of the Shanghai Diocese when he was arrested in 1955 and sentenced to years in prison and house arrest before being exiled to the United States, where he died in 2000.

Writing last April in the Asian Wall Street Journal, Kung called the imprisoned bishops “citizens of the Vatican and ‘soldiers’ of the Church.” He concluded, “So it's inconceivable that the Vatican would reestablish diplomatic relations with China while so many of its soldiers and citizens remain captive there.”

But Maryknoll Father Larry Lewis, who heads a Vatican-approved program that brings Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association seminarians and priests to the United States for studies, says that lines are no longer so clearly drawn between Patriotic Association and underground clergy and laity.

“The Vatican has always had the view that there is one Catholic Church in China,” he said, “and the invitation to the four bishops without reference to affiliation is a reflection of that view,” he said.

About half of the country's 15 million Catholics attend churches approved by the Patriotic Association, according to Deacon Doug Lovejoy, executive director of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau, which has close ties to the Maryknoll Mission Society and the U.S. Catholic bishops.

About 7.5 million Catholics worship at underground services, he said, though there is much crossover at local levels, especially in rural provinces where government surveillance of religion is less intense.

Deacon Lovejoy cited the ordination last June of Shanghai Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi as a prime example of the sometimes confusing but hopeful situation in China.

Bishop Xing was consecrated in a ceremony led by Patriotic Association-approved Bishop Jin Luxian, yet the ordination also was approved by the Vatican, Deacon Lovejoy said.

Furthermore, underground Catholics in China do not recognize Bishop Jin as the head of the Shanghai Diocese, claiming that the equally elderly Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang is the true Vatican-appointed leader. Deacon Lovejoy said that the Vatican is hoping that when the two elderly bishops die, the young Bishop Xing, with both government and Vatican approval, will unite the government-sanctioned and underground communities.

According to news reports, Bishop Xing professed to “loyally serve” the Pope during the ceremony.

Change Coming

The tide, indeed, may be changing, though it remains to be seen how far the communist government will allow developments to go.

A former Chinese student who attended Mass with Patriotic Association priests growing up told the Register that the government's attitude toward the Church is improving. There is little distinction in the average Chinese Catholic's mind between Patriotic and underground factions, said the student, who is living and studying in the United States, and did not want his name used.

“I think in the larger picture, the differences are disappearing,” he said. “Most bishops in China are reconciled with Rome now even if they are recognized by the government. In my home diocese, the bishop, who is 86 years old, was appointed years ago by Rome and now he is friendly with the government.”

Pope Benedict, too, hopes for improvement. In his first meeting with the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, the Pope said May 12 that he hoped that countries that still do not have formal ties with the Vatican gain representation soon. Though he did not name those countries, The People's Republic of China was obviously one of them.

Stephen Vincent is based in Wallingford, Conn.