Pope Francis writes a letter to Chinese Catholics on trust and reconciliation

(Paul Haring/CNS)

Pope Francis has written a very personal and important message to “the Catholics in China and to the universal church” regarding the recent agreement signed by the Holy See and China on the appointment of bishops, the new situation they now find themselves in and the horizons the agreement opens up for achieving reconciliation and unity in the church and the evangelization of people in that vast country.

Pope Francis urged Chinese Catholics on Wednesday to trust God and make concrete gestures of reconciliation following the landmark deal that is aimed at ending years of antagonism between Beijing and the Vatican.

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“I now invite all Catholics to work towards reconciliation,” he told the some 12 million members of church in China who, as a result of political forces, are today divided into two distinct communities: the official or “open” church community and the “underground” or clandestine church community.

All Christians, none excluded, must now offer gestures of reconciliation and communion.

The pope called on Catholics in China “to be united, so as to overcome the divisions of the past that have caused, and continue to cause great suffering in the hearts of many pastors and faithful.” He told them, “all Christians, none excluded, must now offer gestures of reconciliation and communion.”

He explained that he had written this 12-page letter, which the Vatican released today, because of “conflicting reports have circulated about the present and, in particular, the future of the Catholic communities in China,” which have caused “confusion and prompted different reactions in the hearts of many.”

Pope Francis noted that in China “some feel doubt and perplexity, while others sense themselves somehow abandoned by the Holy See and anxiously question the value of their sufferings endured out of fidelity to the Successor of Peter.” But many others have “positive expectations” inspired by “the hope of a more serene future for a fruitful witness to the faith in China.”

Pope Francis said he wanted “to assure” all Chinese Catholics that “you are daily present in my prayers,” and to share his “heartfelt feelings.”

He spoke about his own, and the whole church’s great “admiration” for those who have suffered so much for the faith in China over many years. He assured them that their sufferings are not in vain, nor are they ignored, rather they are an inestimable treasure for the universal church.

Aware that many were afraid of the risk the church was taking in signing the agreement with the communist authorities in Beijing, Francis sought to help them understand all this from the perspective of faith, by citing the example of Abraham and the words of the famous Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci.

“Called by God, Abraham obeyed by setting out for an unknown land that he was to receive as an inheritance, without knowing the path that lay ahead,” said the pope. “Had Abraham demanded ideal social and political conditions before leaving his land, perhaps he would never have set out.” Instead, he said, “Abraham trusted in God and in response to God’s word he left his home and its safety. It was not historical changes that made him put his trust in God; rather, it was his pure faith that brought about a change in history.”

Signing the agreement involved a leap of faith, he said, and it also required a readiness to trust the Chinese authorities.

Signing the agreement involved a leap of faith, he said, and it also required a readiness to trust the Chinese authorities. Pope Francis recalled that in his treatise on friendship, Matteo Ricci noted how challenging the virtue of trust can be. “Before entering into friendship, one must observe; after becoming friends, one must trust,” said Ricci. Pope Francis said that he too was convinced that “encounter can be authentic and fruitful only if it occurs through the practice of dialogue, which involves coming to know one another, to respect one another and to ‘walk together’ for the sake of building a common future of sublime harmony.” He told Chinese Catholics and the wider world that “this is the context in which to view the Provisional Agreement.”

He went onto explain, as he had done on the plane last night returning from the Baltic States, that the provisional agreement “is the result of a lengthy and complex institutional dialogue between the Holy See and the Chinese authorities initiated by Saint John Paul II and continued by Pope Benedict XVI.”

He emphasized that “through this process, the Holy See has desired—and continues to desire—only to attain the church’s specific spiritual and pastoral aims, namely, to support and advance the preaching of the Gospel, and to reestablish and preserve the full and visible unity of the Catholic community in China.”

“The Holy See has desired—and continues to desire—only to attain the church’s specific spiritual and pastoral aims.”

Francis explained that the agreement is a journey that “requires time and presupposes the good will of both parties.” For the church, “this involves more than simply respecting human values,” it is “an ecclesial summons to become pilgrims along the paths of history, trusting before all else in God and in his promises, as did Abraham and our fathers in the faith.”

He told Chinese Catholics that “as the Successor of Peter, I want to confirm you in this faith in the faith of Abraham, in the faith of the Virgin Mary, in the faith you have received—and to ask you to place your trust ever more firmly in the Lord of history and in the Church’s discernment of his will.”

He explained to them that “precisely for the sake of supporting and promoting the preaching of the Gospel in China and reestablishing full and visible unity in the church, it was essential, before all else, to deal with the issue of the appointment of bishops.”

Pope Francis recalled that the recent history of the Catholic Church in China “has been marked by deep and painful tensions, hurts and divisions, centered especially on the figure of the bishop as the guardian of the authenticity of the faith and as guarantor of ecclesial communion.”

In the past the Chinese authorities “presumed to determine the internal life of the Catholic communities,” said the pope, “imposing direct control above and beyond the legitimate competence of the state.” As a result, Francis explained that “the phenomenon of clandestinity arose in the church in China”—something that “is not a normal part of the life of the church and “history shows that pastors and faithful have recourse to it only amid suffering, in the desire to maintain the integrity of their faith.”

Pope Francis recalled that the recent history of the Catholic Church in China “has been marked by deep and painful tensions.

He told them that since he became pope he had “experienced great consolation in knowing the heartfelt desire of Chinese Catholics to live their faith in full communion with the universal church and with the Successor of Peter.” He revealed that he has received “numerous concrete signs and testimonies of that desire, including from bishops who have damaged communion in the church as a result of weakness and errors, but also, and not infrequently, due to powerful and undue pressure” from outside political forces.

Then turning to the seven bishops who were ordained without papal approval, Francis explained that “after carefully examining every individual personal situation, and listening to different points of view, I have devoted much time to reflection and prayer, seeking the true good of the church in China.”

In the end, he said, “before the Lord and with serenity of judgment, in continuity with the direction set by my immediate predecessors, I have determined to grant reconciliation to the remaining seven ‘official’ bishops ordained without papal mandate and, having lifted every relevant canonical sanction, to readmit them to full ecclesial communion.”

“I have devoted much time to reflection and prayer, seeking the true good of the church in China.” ​​​​​​

At the same time, Pope Francis said, he has asked them “to express with concrete and visible gestures their restored unity with the Apostolic See and with the churches spread throughout the world, and to remain faithful despite any difficulties.”

He explained that he had exercised a ministry of mercy, and he invited Chinese Catholics to do likewise.

As a result of these decisions, he said, “we can initiate an unprecedented process that we hope will help to heal the wounds of the past, restore full communion among all Chinese Catholics, and lead to a phase of greater fraternal cooperation, in order to renew our commitment to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel.” He reminded them with emphasis that “the Church exists for the sake of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and to the forgiving and saving love of the Father.”

Turning to the provisional agreement, Pope Francis said that “while limited to certain aspects of the Church’s life and necessarily capable of improvement, can contribute—for its part—to writing this new chapter of the Catholic Church in China.” He explained that “for the first time, the Agreement sets out stable elements of cooperation between the state authorities and the Apostolic See, in the hope of providing the Catholic community with good shepherds.”

While “the Holy See intends fully to play its own part” in this process, he emphasized that “an important part also falls to you, the bishops, priests, consecrated men and women, and lay faithful” in making the agreement work. He called on them “to join in seeking good candidates capable of taking up in the Church the demanding and important ministry of bishop.”

“An agreement is merely an instrument,” said the pope, “and not of itself capable of resolving all existing problems. Indeed, it will prove ineffective and unproductive, unless it is accompanied by a deep commitment to renewing personal attitudes and ecclesial forms of conduct.”

He called on Catholics in China to be united and work to overcome the divisions of the past, and bring about unity and reconciliation in the church.

He encouraged them to be “good citizens” on the civil and political level and “to make a prophetic and constructive contribution born of their faith in the kingdom of God.”

He called on the Chinese bishops, priests, women and men religious and laity to “recognize one another as followers of Christ in the service of God’s people,” to “make pastoral charity the compass” for their ministry, to “leave behind past conflicts and attempts to pursue our own interests, and care for the faithful, making our own their joys and their sufferings” and with enthusiasm “take up the path of evangelization.”

He called on young Catholics “to bring, by your enthusiasm, the joy of the Gospel to everyone you meet.”

He called on young Catholics “to cooperate in building the future of your country with the talents and gifts that you have received” and “bring, by your enthusiasm, the joy of the Gospel to everyone you meet.”

Pope Francis appealed to Catholics throughout the world “to recognize as one of the signs of our times everything that is happening today in the life of the Church in China” and “to accompany our brothers and sisters in China with fervent prayer and fraternal friendship.”

Finally, “with respect” he invited the Chinese leaders “ to continue, with trust, courage and farsightedness, the dialogue begun some time ago.” And he assured them that the Holy See “will continue to work sincerely for the growth of genuine friendship with the Chinese people.”

In this way, he said, China and the Apostolic See, “will be able to act more positively for the orderly and harmonious growth of the Catholic community in China” and for the promotion of “the integral development of society by ensuring greater respect for the human person, also in the religious sphere”, and “will work concretely to protect the environment in which we live and to build a future of peace and fraternity between peoples.”

Francis emphasized that it is essential that in China, “also on the local level, relations between the leaders of ecclesial communities and the civil authorities become more productive through frank dialogue and impartial listening, so as to overcome antagonism on both sides.”

He said that the church in China “is not oblivious to Chinese history, nor does she seek any privilege. Her aim in the dialogue with civil authorities is that of “building a relationship based on mutual respect and deeper understanding.”

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