The National Catholic Review

Most of the international media reported that China allowed Pope Francis to fly through its airspace to and from Korea in August. They also informed their global audiences that Francis expressed his wish for good relations with Beijing and his ardent desire to visit there “tomorrow.”

The same media, however, gave little visibility to other aspects of the somewhat complex Sino-Vatican relation in regard to Francis’ visit to Korea for Asian Youth Day and the beatification of 124 martyrs.

In this week’s dispatch, I want to look at some of these lesser known aspects, beginning with how China’s official media treated the visit.

Hong Kong’s bishop, Cardinal John Tong Hon, told me recently that ever since Francis’ election, China’s official media have given him a neutral, even positive press, and never published negative reports on him. “That’s quite remarkable,” he stated.

When it came to Francis’ first visit to Asia, however, China’s international English language media—China Daily and Xinhua News Agency—reported on his flight through its airspace and the telegrams he sent to President Xi Jinping, but its national media did not provide any report on this. In fact, China’s national press, radio and TV did not report on his visit, nor did they mention that Francis beatified a Chinese priest martyr. Chinese Catholics learned about all this through other channels.

Commenting on this treatment by the Chinese media, the Rev. Gianni Criviller, an Italian missionary and Sinologist, said, “It’s very important to distinguish between what China’s authorities do for international P.R. and what they do inside China; these are two completely different stories.”

Take the case of allowing the papal flight to travel through China’s airspace. China watchers recalled that Beijing refused this passage to John Paul II but observed that since Francis is the most popular leader on planet Earth today, it would have looked bad if it refused him transit. Cardinal Tong, on the other hand, interpreted the Chinese decision in a more positive light. “This is a good sign. We look forward to further developments,” he said.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the decision regarding the airspace came after official Chinese and Holy See delegations met in Rome last June, reopening a dialogue that had been closed for some years.

On the other hand, there is the negative side of Beijing’s reaction to the papal visit to Korea and, in particular, to Asian Youth Day. This must be reported because it reflects the hard reality of Catholic life in China today.

One hundred fifteen young Chinese Catholics from most dioceses in the mainland had registered to participate in the youth day, but in the end only 60 managed to attend. The other 55 were prevented from doing so by various forms of “persuasion” or were blocked at the airport. They suffered for their faith.

This hard fact shows that the situation of Chinese Catholics has worsened somewhat since 1995, when Beijing allowed an official delegation of Catholic young people from mainland China to attend World Youth Day in Manila.

In Korea, a Chinese source at the event, who requested anonymity for fear of consequences, told me: “Some Chinese youths risked their security to see the pope and to attend the Asian Youth Day. They showed to the world their love for their faith and for their country by proudly wearing a T-shirt that carried the word ‘China’ emblazoned on it. All these Chinese felt strengthened and encouraged in their Catholic faith by meeting the pope and experienced themselves as members of the universal church.”

These young mainlanders, who risked careers, peace and security to be with the pope, shared their faith with 240 fellow Chinese from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan and with young Catholics from other Asian countries. “They prayed together, learned from the faith experiences of the Korean martyrs and reflected on how they should respond to the Lord’s call to be evangelizers in their own country, and perhaps even martyrs,” my source concluded.

Pope Francis knew all this when he spoke about China on the flight back from Korea. His words should be read in this context, especially when he says: “The church asks only for liberty for its mission and its work. There’s no other condition” and reminds everyone that Benedict XVI’s letter to China’s Catholics is still “current.”

Gerard O’Connell is America’s Rome correspondent. America’s Vatican coverage is sponsored in part by the Jesuit communities of the United States. Twitter: @gerryorome.

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