The risks for the Catholic Church in China are real—but the church is ready to face them.
This past Christmas, Catholics in China rejoiced, despite the ongoing tensions between the “underground” and state-recognized church. For the first time in more than six decades, the faithful openly celebrated as one flock the incarnation of the eternal Word. For the Catholic community in the Middle Kingdom, Christ’s prayer made in agony, “that they be one,” was finally realized.
The quest for unity in the Chinese Catholic Church has been a long one. The current phase can be traced to the 1950s, when Chairman Mao Zedong closed all churches and the “underground” church developed. In the late 1970s, when the government established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (C.C.P.A.), the underground church was invited to come under government registration. Some of the faithful and members of the clergy accepted. Many did not. With a new agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops, the Catholic Church in China has entered a new era.
It is true that the September 2018 accord between Beijing and the Vatican entails significant structural and political challenges and risks (see “What is at stake? The peril and promise of the China-Vatican deal,” by Paul P. Mariani, S.J., in the Jan. 7, 2019, issue of America). But untold hours of the difficult work of dialogue, by many players from both the underground and the registered church—especially in recent decades—have left the church in a better position to navigate the challenges to come.
Epitomizing this phenomenon was the Diocese of Mindong in Southeast China, where the faithful had been painfully divided for years: An “underground” bishop led a large presbyterate and laity that was separated from a registered bishop who tended to a smaller presbyterate and flock. At the personal request of Pope Francis, Bishop Guo Xijin—who had been ordained the bishop by Rome—heroically agreed to accept auxiliary bishop status under the government-appointed Bishop Zhan Silu. This step—key to the Sino-Vatican accord—was infuriating to some who had courageously resisted for years and heartbreaking to many who had suffered for the cause. When this development was announced, many priests of the “underground” church, encouraged by vehement opponents in Hong Kong, the United States and elsewhere, spoke of resigning from the priesthood rather than acquiesce.
One of the most esteemed priests from the unregistered church, Father Luo Wen, made a plea for unity to his brother priests and faithful during a convocation of priests last December: “This is about our faith, not about our opinion or even principles….Faithfulness to the church was the reason we went underground. The same reason, faithfulness, is why we now embrace the accord.” This perspective is shared by Bishop Guo himself, who said, “The main purpose of our work is to try to preserve the integrity of our faith, not the pursuit of our rights or personal honor when obedience and humility are at stake.”
“The main purpose of our work is to try to preserve the integrity of our faith, not the pursuit of our rights or personal honor.”
And so at Christmas in Mindong, the Christ child was worshipped by a church grateful for the grace of reconciliation.
Bold actions within the structures of the registered church have also brought us to this point of unity. A former seminarian, Liu Bainian of Shandong province, was named head of the C.C.P.A. in 1980. I met with him several times over the years, and he constantly invoked the Holy Spirit as he explained complex issues and his decision to work with the government so that the church could endure and thrive.
When Deng Xiaoping reopened the churches in the late 1970s, it was Mr. Liu who reached out to the universal church and began the march toward reconciliation. He invited to China the Maryknoll priest Laurence T. Murphy, who was among the first to build bridges between the C.C.P.A. and the universal church. He emboldened Shanghai Bishop Jin Luxian to reach out and establish relationships with U.S. and European church leaders. Mr. Liu accepted the assistance of Cardinal John O’Connor, the archbishop of New York, in bringing Chinese bishops and priests to the United States for training. He also met with Mother Teresa in 1985 to facilitate her outreach to the Chinese church. In short, without Mr. Liu’s official work for the C.C.P.A. and his willingness to dialogue with the wider world and church, the reconciliation of Catholics that we saw in Mindong would be difficult to imagine.
Finally, a key step in the pilgrimage toward unity occurred in 2015 when leaders of the Chinese episcopal conference, Bishops Ma Yinglin, Zhan Silu and Yang Xiaoting, were invited to the United States, where they met with representatives of Cardinal Sean O’Malley in Boston, spoke at the Yale University School of Divinity, Immaculate Conception seminary at Seton Hall University, the University of Notre Dame and Loyola University Chicago. They also prayed at the St. Damien shrine in Molokai, Hawaii. It was during this “journey for reconciliation” that Bishops Ma and Zhan presented a bible to Cardinal O’Malley to give to Pope Francis, inscribed “we love you, we pray for you, we await you in China” together with letters requesting full communion.
Not everyone agrees that the current rapprochement between China and the Vatican warrants rejoicing. Latent pain and well-grounded fears persist. This unity is surely rife with paradox and ambiguity. It reflects a conviction that it is possible to be both a faithful disciple of the church and a loyal patriot of the homeland, to have diversity without division and autonomy without independence, to have unity without unification, and practical reconciliation beyond mere verbal forgiveness. It echos the suggestion of Phil Klay (America, 12/10/2018) that church is “an invitation to mystery, not mastery, to communion, not control.” In the final analysis the life of the church is complicated.
In the final analysis the life of the church is complicated.
But the vision of recent popes, the courage of bishops like Ma Yinglin and Guo Xijin, and the graced action of priests like Father Luo Wen and laypeople like Liu Bainian have enabled the universal church to better understand and take on these challenges.
For now, Christ’s prayer for unity has trumped our human desire for power and control. As Father Luo has articulated, “It is about the faith.”