September 5, 2014


The pope and the Chinese

There are an estimated 12 million Catholics in China, so Pope Francis is naturally anxious to establish better relations with the People’s Republic of China. Is there much chance that he can do so?

During his flight to South Korea on Aug. 14, the pope sent this message to President Xi Jinping as his plane flew over Chinese airspace: “I extend the best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.”

Of course, he sent a similar message to the leaders of eight other countries as the plane flew over their airspace. However, even the fact that he was permitted to fly over China was seen as progress. When St. John Paul II flew to the Philippines in 1995, the Chinese denied permission to fly over their territory, forcing the papal plane to make a long detour.

On the flight back from South Korea, Pope Francis talked to the press about the message and about his desire to go to China. He said that he had been in the cockpit with the pilots when they requested authorization and sent the telegram. Then, he said, “I left them, returned to my seat and prayed hard for that great and noble Chinese people, a wise people.”

As a Jesuit, Pope Francis said, he is particularly interested in China because “part of our history is there.” St. Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits, tried to go to China in 1552, but he died on the island of Sancian near the China coast. Thirty years later, though, Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci established a mission in China and became an influential adviser to the emperor.

Pope Francis continued, “Do I want to go to China? Of course: tomorrow! Oh, yes. We respect the Chinese people; it is just that the Church seeks freedom for her mission, for her work; no other condition. We must not forget that fundamental document for the Chinese problem which was the letter to the Chinese written by Pope Benedict XVI. That letter is still timely today.”

The letter the pope referred to, issued on May 27, 2007, offered to the Chinese Catholics “guidelines concerning the life of the Church and the task of evangelization in China.” It was an attempt to heal the rift that had developed between the Catholic Patriotic Association recognized by the Chinese government and the underground Catholic Church loyal to the pope. It emphasized that the Church has no political ambitions.

However, it also included a frank assessment of the problem the Vatican has with Chinese authorities concerning episcopal appointments. Both the Chinese government and the Church insist on making the appointments.

The letter acknowledged as “understandable that governmental authorities are attentive to the choice of those who will carry out the important role of leading and shepherding the local Catholic communities.” However, it also said, “The Holy See follows the appointment of bishops with special care since this touches the very heart of the life of the Church, inasmuch as the appointment of bishops by the pope is the guarantee of the unity of the Church and of hierarchical communion.”

Relations seemed to be improving between 2007 and 2010. In 2007, a coadjutor bishop for the Guiyang Diocese was jointly appointed by the pope and the Chinese government. But then, in 2010, some bishops and priests were coerced into attending the ordination of a new bishop who was not appointed by the pope.

Those who are encouraged by Pope Francis’ interest in improving relations note that he was elected only hours before President Xi, and they exchanged congratulatory messages. Xi seems to be trying to make reforms in the Chinese government, as the pope is doing within the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, the pope’s choice for secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, led efforts by the Vatican to improve relations with Vietnam. In that case, the Vatican and the Vietnamese government have quietly begun to mutually agree on episcopal appointments.

We Americans have long shown an interest in converting China. Let’s pray that Pope Francis will be successful in his efforts toward those he called the “great and noble Chinese people.”

—John F. Fink

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