Some Reflections on Benedict XVI's Letter to the Church in China
Savio Hon Tai-Fai, S.D.B.
Member of the International Theological Commission, Hong Kong
On 29 June we celebrated the feast of St. Peter. The Words from the dialogue between Jesus and Peter in the Gospel still resonate. "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked. "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God". "Blessed are you. Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it".
The promise of Jesus reminds me of the Letter of Benedict XVI to the Church in China published one year ago on 30 June 2007. I asked people around how they felt about the Letter. Many of them did not read the entire text. They had only a faint idea about the appeal of the Pope for reconciliation and unity. Upon my asking, they often turned to me with great interest requesting me to explain the Letter to them.
A friend of mine, James, was among them. He is a Chinese from Singapore working in Mainland China. Out of great curiosity he tried to read this Letter. After a few lines, he gave up admitting that it was beyond his comprehension. Those few lines were quoted from Scripture (Col 1:3-5, 9-11) with a wish, "May you be strengthened". It is with these words of the Apostle Paul that the Holy Father wished to convey the expression of his fraternal closeness. As the Successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict in his Letter would like to strengthen the faith of the Catholics in China.
James is a middle-aged businessman, a non-practicing Catholic having little knowledge of Scripture and no idea of the situation of Church in China. It is little wonder that he could not understand the Letter. But, strange enough, after listening to my short explanation, he seemed to have got a "click" in his mind. He sensed something powerful and mysterious behind the Church in these years of turmoil and wanted to attain that power. In fact, he started taking his faith more seriously.
The Letter of the Pope was written with an earnest trust in Jesus Christ who is the same "yesterday and today and for ever". He is "the key, the centre and the purpose of the whole of human history". The faith of Peter was a gift from the heavenly Father, and hence it became a beginning of many other gifts. In fact, Peter was also given the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven".
On and off I met some priests from China. Most of them were of the so-called Official Church. I asked them about their feedback to the Letter. Here are the three things I often heard.
Charity, clarity and unity
First of all, the Letter was written with both charity and clarity. It is charity with which the Pope appeals for reconciliation and forgiveness. It is clarity with which he makes it clear that the Church in China should be built on the same rock of Peter through the communion of the Bishops with the Pope. Thus, any Episcopal ordination requires the Apostolic Mandate from the Pope. This is a matter of faith — something unrenounceable.
Secondly, the Letter touched the crux of the problem — the root cause of the rupture of unity. The appeal to charity cannot ignore those who are responsible for such a rupture. In recent years the Church has enjoyed greater religious freedom than in the past, but grave limitations still remain. Such limitations being harmful to the Church and having no gain for the State are totally unnecessary.
The Church has no intention to change the structure of the State. The Catholics are motivated by faith to be good citizens, and active contributors to the common good. "Living by faith", one priest said, "we can genuinely promote harmony in our society". Incidentally, "harmony in society has become a slogan for the entire nation".
Thirdly, the Catholics in China have been asked to ignore the Letter. The Letter was yanked from the web-sites. Priests or pastoral assistants have been advised not to talk about it. All this effort, as one priest remarked ironically, was just enough to whet people's appetite for the search of it.
There was another incident. In the Letter, the Pontiff dedicated 24 May (the Feast of Mary Help of Christians) to be the World Day of Prayer for the Church in China. Every year many pilgrims organize by group go to the Basilica of Sheshan (dedicated to Mary Help of Christians). For this occasion Pope Benedict composed a prayer to Our Lady of Sheshan. This year on that day many past pilgrimages to Sheshan had to be cancelled. Only controls and interference remained the order of the day.
What will be the next move of the Church? To this question, I often saw smiles that signal a kind of "don't know yet but let us see". The Pontiff himself is aware that reconciliation cannot be achieved overnight. Patience and prayers are required. Of course in the Letter there are practical guidelines for pastoral care.
The Bishops are reminded of the principle of communion and cooperation. By and large, Church unity and the spiritual good of the faithful are the major concern. Pope Benedict also revokes all the faculties previously granted in order to address particular needs. The faculties include the possibility of allowing some Bishops even to administer episcopal ordination secretly in extreme cases. The act of revoking the faculties is to avoid confusion, and would make Church life more transparent to the public.
Church and State issues
Furthermore, the Letter contains messages for the Chinese government. The concrete forms of communication and cooperation between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China may hopefully be established soon. The normalization of relations between both is earnestly hoped for; or at least the Holy See for its part is open to negotiations.
One year after the publication of the Letter, while approaching the grand opening of Olympic Games, both parties do not seem to draw closer. The impasse in negotiations were reported by the media long before the publication of the Letter.
It is interesting to note that the so-called impasse have been repeatedly brought out ever since July 2007 in the public celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Catholic Church Patriotic Association (CCCP). Actually there are two impasse according to CCCP. One is that the Vatican is the only government in Europe to recognize Taiwan. Another is that the Pope wishes to appoint Bishops in Mainland China. Hence, to clear away the impasse, according to China, the Vatican should sever "diplomatic relations" with Taiwan and renounce the wish to appoint Bishops.
As for the first impasse, the solution seems to be much easier. If an agreement is reached between the Holy See and China, the transfer of the Apostolic Nunciature to Beijing can take place at any time. However, it is not easy to reach such an agreement, because the appointment of Bishops by the Pope is seen as interference in the internal affairs of China. That is why the Pope in his Letter explains at length that the episcopal appointment by the Pope is purely a religious matter, and that the Catholic Church must be given freedom to do so.
Some Chinese priests went for the Golden Jubilee ceremonies of the CCCP in a diocese. They told me that the Government Officials in delivering their speeches held a very conciliatory tone admonishing people to work for the harmony of the society. However, the tone of CCCP members in their speeches sounds more aggressive, even accusing the Vatican of interfering in internal affairs. They vowed to adhere to independent election and ordination of bishops and management of their Churches. One priest, an influential member of the CCCP, spoke up during the meeting. While, he said, many merits of the CCCP should be given due recognitions, care must be taken that the Church unity must be maintained. What is the use, after all, if a local Church is removed from the "main trunk" of unity? The priest tried to hint that the "main trunk" was used as an analogy to mean the communion with the Successor of Peter.
The Letter clearly states that the Church division is caused from the outside by certain "entities". The anonymous use of this word is taken as a conciliatory signal towards those entities such as CCCP or the institutes that stand behind them, Some of them (e.g. some local patriotic association at the provincial level) are doing good to the Church, whereas others are doing harm to corrode the Church in every sense.
Then, the Letter strongly disagrees with the principles of independence and autonomy which are incompatible with Catholic doctrine. And footnote 36 says that these principles are held by the CCCP as shown in the third article of its statutes. This is a condemnation against both its policies and its consequent operations without any extenuating circumstances.
The Holy Father, of course, raises the hope and wants to reach the hearts of people so that change may take place. No matter how grave the limitations of freedom may be, people do have choice. In fact, the faithfulness of the Catholics in China "at the price of grave sufferings" is very much praised in the Letter.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His promise is powerful, though sometimes mysteriously hidden. We may not know what exactly the next move is. The Holy Spirit certainly knows where to move. The long-lived civilization in China is a sign of his move. The progress today may have its shadows and lights, but people at the promptings of the Holy Spirit will work for the values and freedom that they are longing for at heart.
A non-practicing Catholic while not understanding much the Letter understands the mysterious power behind the faith. Institutions or entities do not have life in themselves. It is people that count. The Church in her service for unity is given two pillars. One is Charity. another Truth. The Letter strikes the tone of hope. It is on the Rock of Peter that we find safety from "the attacks of the gates of the netherworld".
Weekly Edition in English
27 August 2008, page 11
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