On March 18, 2019, Milanese daily Corriere della Sera ran a piece saying, “If Xi Jinping, who is visiting our country [Italy] from March 21–23, refuses to meet Pope Bergoglio in the Vatican, it will play into the hands of those who have always been suspicious of the Holy See’s provisional and secret agreement with China.”
The next day, in French daily La Croix, Nicolas Senèze explained that in spite of Francis’ wish to receive President Xi Jinping, “the Chinese backed out in the end especially, it would seem, because of tensions among the Chinese themselves, who did not wish to overshadow the important agreement on the new Silk Road pact to be signed with Italy, and who also wished to avoid annoying the US.” Corriere della Sera added, “As the Corriere predicted, Francis is very keen to meet. He has invested a great deal in opening the Chinese path, at the risk of being accused of “selling” “clandestine” Chinese Catholics in exchange for an agreement: a criticism behind which one also senses the suspicions of the US, annoyed by the pope’s strategy. But Xi Jinping has encountered resistance on both sides of the nomenklatura of the Communist Party of China, uncertain whether to legitimize the provisional agreements made with the Vatican. And, at least for the moment, it would seem that these perplexities still prevail.” The meeting did not happen; Xi Jinping ignored Francis’ invitation.
On March 25, 2019, after the Chinese president left Italy, the Jesuit periodical La Civiltà Cattolica presented in its offices a work called The Church in China—a future to be written, published on March 19 in Italian and edited by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, who is also editor of the periodical. At his side were Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and one of the negotiators of the provisional Rome—Beijing agreement, Fr. Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Jesuits, and the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.
The work “assembles a variety of studies published over the last two years in La Civiltà Cattolica and brings the reader on a unique intellectual and ecclesial journey through the culture, the society and the spirituality of China today,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin writes in the preface, emphasizing that there are “two fundamental keys for interpretation: ecclesial continuity and pastoral engagement in the future.”
The provisional Rome-Beijing agreement signed last September 22 on the appointment of bishops “is not only a point of arrival but also, and especially, a point of departure for renewed evangelization,” Archbishop Celli explained. There are positive elements of dialogue, he added, even if the road to normalizing the life of the Church in China is still long. “In particular, the path to unity is not yet completely achieved, and complete reconciliation between Chinese Catholics and the respective communities to which they belong remains a goal of primordial importance. It is therefore more necessary than ever that in China a serious journey of purification of the memory should begin progressively,” Cardinal Parolin wrote.
In an attempt to list the steps that led to the signature of this “provisional” agreement, Archbishop Celli said that contact with the Chinese authorities had begun under John Paul II. His successor, Benedict XVI, was very well-informed on the Chinese issue, he said, having followed it for a long time. As for Pope Francis, he brought the novelty of his charisma into line with his predecessors, bringing out new perspectives. He thus provided concrete support and a new dynamic to the dialogue. In fact, Archbishop Celli insisted, it was under his pontificate that the painful experience of illegitimate bishops came to an end. From now on, Archbishop Celli emphasized, quoting the pope, “all bishops are in communion with Peter.” This connection is one that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in his preface, did not hesitate to link with the apostolic letter Maximum illud of Benedict XV (November 30, 1919): “This pontifical document was entirely dedicated to the missions with the intent of promoting their complete reform, what Pope Francis would call a ‘pastoral conversion.’”
Lastly, Fr. Sosa declared that Christianity is not a culture that opposes others but a religious faith that is incarnated in each culture by enriching it. The ‘sinicization’ of Catholicism is a difficult process that cannot be achieved once and for all. According to him, it is a challenge for Christians to transmit the message of the Gospel to other nations, and yet such is the recommendation of Christ Himself.
The Reality in the Field
Ten days before the Chinese president visited Italy, Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, director of the Italian agency AsiaNews of the Pontifical Institute for the Foreign Missions, emphasized that “it could be important to make the futures of the clandestine Church and the Patriotic Association more clearly known” on this occasion. (See DICI no. 382, March 2019).
Since then, news has surfaced of “blackmail in the diocese of Mindong following the agreement between China and the Holy See.” On April 3, Fr. Cervellera explained in effect that the former ordinary of the diocese, Bishop Vincenzo Guo Xijin, who had become auxiliary bishop at Pope Francis’ request, could not very well celebrate the Chrism Mass. The Bureau for Religious Affairs and the United Front still do not recognize him as bishop. This is in spite of the lifting of the excommunication of the official bishop, Vincenzo Zhan Silu, to whom Bishop Guo was forced to yield the see in submission to the pope’s command (and of necessity, the Chinese government’s). All the unofficial priests are now bound to register and support the “independent Church” [independent from Rome and subjected to Beijing.] “The diocese of Mindong contains over 90,000 Catholics. Among them, over 80,000 belonged to the unofficial Church, ministered to by 57 priests, 200 nuns, 300 consecrated laymen and hundreds of lay catechists. The priests of the official community were 12. These numbers are enough to comprehend why the Bureau of Religious Affairs is trying to destroy the diocesan Church, sending away priests who will not give in. To encourage registration with the Patriotic Association, the Bureau of Religious Affairs has offered some priests sums of to 200,000 yen (nearly 27,000 euros). But up to now, no one has accepted,” Fr. Cervellera explained.
On March 29, AsiaNews announced the new measures taken by the Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs of Guangzhou: “rewards are granted to whomever denounces any ‘illegal religious activity’ in the city, such as underground meetings, the organization of unauthorized religion classes, unauthorized conferences and pilgrimages and their organizers…” The amount paid depends on the extent, the details and the significance of the report. “This means that the reward will be incrementally greater for those who report "clues," those who "provide evidence against foreign illegal religious activities and the persons involved," and those who ‘provide evidence and assist in an inquiry leading to the arrest of persons in a leadership position in illegal foreign religious organizations.”
The Persecution Continues
On April 4, Fr. Cervellera announced, “This morning, the government of Qianyang in Shaanxi Province demolished the only parish in the city. A bulldozer reduced the two-story building to a heap of rubble under the supervision of a group of police. The building contained a chapel and a dispensary as well as serving as a home for the nuns who offered health care to the population. The parish of Qianyang was located in a very poor area of Shaanxi and included approximately 2000 Catholics, all peasants. The diocese of Fengxiang, where this parish is located, is unique in the Chinese Church: it is the only diocese where neither the faithful nor the bishop belong to the Patriotic Association, although there is a Bureau of Religious Affairs. Some observers believe that violence against the parish of Qianyang is a means of forcing the diocese to apply the new religious regulations and oblige bishops and priests to register with the Patriotic Association.”
Vaticanist Sandro Magister commented on April 8 on his blog, “But it’s not just about the material destruction of this building, like so many others of the Catholic Church. What is more serious is the planned strangulation of this huge part of the [clandestine] Church that is not officially recognized by the Chinese government but does not want to yield to the blackmail of being granted legal status on condition they register with the Patriotic Association.”
The demolished church was only recently built, “and the participation of the authorities in the opening ceremony for the new church was also planned: this means nothing was hidden,” Fr. Shanren Shenfu told AsiaNews on April 8. He said, “After the provisional agreement signed by China and the Vatican, we who live within the Chinese Church, we dare not nourish high hopes, because we have been told that we still have a long road to travel, and at the request of the Holy See, we—part of the Chinese Church—must be patient and make real sacrifices. However, adherence to the agreement is the prerequisite for all our actions (the pope claims to have signed the agreement, and it is therefore his responsibility). The text of the signed agreement was never made public (the Vatican said that it would not publish the text at China’s request) so that whatever the Chinese authorities promised is also undefined. As of now, the Holy See has legitimized, according to its own rules, seven [illegitimate] excommunicated bishops, and has asked two diocesan ordinaries [including the bishop of Mindong] to yield their responsibilities to two newly recognized bishops. Nonetheless, in light of what has happened up until now, we have not seen the official authorities relax their vigilance over the Chinese Church.
“The Holy See has heard the laments and groans of the excommunicated bishops, and has accepted them into communion with the merciful heart of a Father, but how can it endure the cries of innocents, making them the bearers of the cross?”
Already on March 5, 2019, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, published on his blog, “The most incredible thing has been the invitation to trust the [Chinese] government! Are our superiors in the Vatican not informed of the recent measures of oppression? Or, after having dissolved the Commission for the Church in China, do they think they can claim this information is not available? A certain number of days have passed since September 22 [when the agreement was signed—Ed.] Can the prelates of the Vatican tell us what we have gained with this agreement? Is it true that the Communist Chinese have finally recognized the authority of the pope? Did not the spokesman for the Patriotic Association and the Bishops’ Conference declare publicly that the principle of the independent Church would be maintained in accordance with the direction of the Party? Did they not solemnly celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first illegitimate episcopal consecrations?”