Matteo Ricci
The Catholic Church is perhaps the largest non-party institution in Communist-led China. The church has been in China since Jesuit missionaries first arrived in 1534, longer than the party, and it is growing. The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) controls the state-backed Catholic church in China and officially represents Chinese Catholics. In accordance with China's policy against foreign oversight of religion, the CPCA does not recognize the authority of the Pope.

There are an estimated 8 million to 15 million Catholics in China (less than one percent of the population). Of these about a 4 million belong to the Beijing-approved Patriotic Catholic Church and the rest belong to underground churches. About a quarter of China’s Catholics live in Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing. The number of Catholics is growing. One official Catholic church in Shanghai conducts mass three times a day on Sunday before 1,000 worshipers each time to keep up with demand. Many clergy minister to both officially sanctioned and unauthorized congregations.

According to a China government State Administration for Religious Affair (SARA) report issued in 2010, more than six million Catholics worship in sites registered by the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). The Pew Center estimates there are nine million Catholics on the mainland, 5.7 million of whom are affiliated with the CPA. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 China”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, ]

China's Catholics are caught between staying loyal to the ruling Communist Party or showing allegiance to the Pope as part of an "underground" Church not recognised by the authorities. Many Catholics attend underground masses—often taking place after midnight in remote buildings reached by winding dirt roads—presided over by priests not recognized in China. Many of the underground Catholic churches are associated with parishes founded by European missionaries before the Communists came to power in 1949. There were 3 to 4 million Catholics in 1949.

Chinese Catholicism has some unique touches. Some Chinese Catholics participate in mass and then venerate their ancestors. Others take bread and wine blessed with firecrackers to drive away evil spirits.

There are 97 Catholic diocese in China. They function under he Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association under the Religious Affairs Bureau, which subordnates Catholic beliefs to Communist ideology. .

Good Websites and Sources: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Articles on Religion in China ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts; ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Academic Info ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies; Chinatxt Ancient Chinese History and Religion chinatxt ; Christianity in China Christianity in China Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; History of Christianity in China Ricci Roundtable

History of Catholicism in China

Catholicism was introduced into China as early as A.D. 635 in the early Tang Dynasty. Early Catholic missionaries—including the 16th century Jesuits priests Francis Xavier, Matteo Ricci and Michael Ruggieri—played a big part in introducing western learning to China but won relatively few converts. The Chinese were disgusted by the images of a bleeding, crucified Christ and equated it with black magic. The Chinese Board of Rites told the Emperor: "The western ocean countries have no relations with us, and do not accept our laws. The images and paintings of the Lord of heaven and of a virgin...are not of great value." Some Jesuit priests were imprisoned. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Catholicism spread somewhat during the foreign occupation of China in the 19th century. By 1949, the number of Catholics in China had reached 2.7 million. It was banned along with other religions by the Communists in 1949, when 5,500 foreign missionaries, nuns and clergy working for the Catholic church were expelled. The Vatican and China have not had formal diplomatic ties since 1951, when the Holy See angered Mao Zedong's Communist government by recognising the Nationalist Chinese regime in Taiwan as the legitimate government of China. Ties between the Vatican and Beijing were broken off in 1957 when Beijing expelled the Papal Nuncio and Pius XII excommunicated two bishops that had been appointed by Mao. In response to this Mao created the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. As China's Catholic population has grown in recent years, the two sides have warmed to each other, although Beijing's insistence in overriding Vatican authority in approving bishops has cast a shadow over improved ties.

An inscription on a Catholic Church in 1980 read: "American imperialism took preaching as its cover. All over China they erected churches like this and carried out destructive activities...The American missionaries joined up with the Qing Dynasty troops and attacked the Small Sword Society troops, and the church acted as a stronghold."

Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was the most famous of the Jesuit priests and the most influential European in China since Marco Polo. He translated the Confucian analects to Portuguese and developed the first methods for romanizing Chinese characters. He arrived in Macau in 1582; moved to Beijing in 1603; and spent 20 years with imperial court in Beijing. He wrote extensively about the things he observed and has been widely quoted by historians.

Activities and Pilgrimage Sites of Catholics in China

Tolerance of underground Catholic churches varies from place to place. In some places Catholics have built unauthorized churches and set up charitable organizations like orphanages with tacit government approval. In other places underground churches are raided, priests are followed and worshipers are even thrown in jail. As a rule though underground churches are allowed to operate by authorities as long as they carry out their activities discreetly. One priest told the Washington Post, “Generally, the police don’t bother me because they know I’m not causing trouble.”

Catholic priests often dress in shabby clothes. Some are trained by underground Catholic teachers and say they are against abortion but admit they are also sympathetic to the government policy of limiting the number of children. Many Catholics are young people who pledge their loyalty to the Vatican not the Communist party.

All but nine of the 70 bishops in China have secretly declared their loyalty to the Vatican. New bishops have reportedly been approved in advance by the Vatican and then are approved by Beijing. One bishop who has been approved by the Vatican and is allowed to operate in China after spending 20 years in prison says he bows to the wishes of the Chinese government except on issues of dogma. When authorities tell him to participate in certain pilgrimages, reduce the size of gatherings or attend patriotic Catholicism seminars, he obeys.

One of the biggest Catholic pilgrimage sites in China is in Donghu (130 miles from Beijing), a village outside of Baoding where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared to save Catholics from anti-Western zealots during the Boxer Rebellion on May 24, 1900. Over 10,000 Chinese Catholics show up for the large outdoor mass held annually at Donghu on May 24th.

Twice a year, in May and September, both official and underground Catholics converge at Cross Mountain in Shaanxi Province. The festival honors Liu Jialu, a priest who asked the Pope in 1717 to designate a holy place in China. Thousands of faithful carry crucifixes and kneel in prayer as they climb the mountain. At the top priests conduct mass and hear confession. Within the crowds are plainclothes policemen and informers.

Catholicism in Remote Areas of Sichuan and Yunnan

Catholicism has penetrated into some remote places in China. Cizhong, a village in Yunnan near the Tibetan border, three hours on a bad road from the nearest town, is the home of a European-style Catholic church built more than a century ago by missionaries. Around 600 of the village’s 1,000 villagers are Tibetan Catholics. They go to church every Sunday and sing chants from, hymnal called "Chants in Religeux Thibetan." French priests brought the religion here in the 1860s and the community endured through the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution. Many members arrive at the church on Sunday after walking for more than an hour from their mountain homes.

Sichuan Province — situated in one of China’s most culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse regions, with Tibetan, Hui, and Yi ethnic group — is home to some of China’s oldest and most well-preserved Catholic churches. Travelers to the area can find centuries-old Tibetan and Taoist temples standing alongside mosques and churches.Ma Te wrote in Sixth Tone: “Of the various faiths practiced in Sichuan, Christianity stands out as a relative latecomer. The first Catholic missionary known to have reached the province was an Italian Jesuit named Lodovico Buglio, who spent much of the 1640s proselytizing there. Eventually, in 1753, the Paris Foreign Missions Society, a Catholic lay organization, took over responsibility for the Catholic missionary presence in Sichuan. By 1804, there was a small but growing community of Sichuanese Catholics, including 18 Chinese priests and four French missionaries. [Source: Ma Te, Sixth Tone, November 7, 2018, “Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell]

“Over the ensuing two centuries, this community persevered through all manner of upheaval — including occasional imperial campaigns against foreign religions, the bloody chaos that followed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, and the forced expulsion of foreign missionaries following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In the process, it built up a fascinating cultural and architectural legacy, as well as some of China’s oldest and finest churches.

“Any discussion of China’s temples, churches, and mosques must eventually touch on the violence of the past century in China. But whereas the Cultural Revolution left religious buildings in ruins across the country, many of Sichuan’s churches were spared, in part because of their connections to Communist Party history. A Catholic church I visited in the town of Moxi was preserved because Mao Zedong held a meeting there in 1935. Another church in the area was saved, because it had once hosted a Red Army party. Many of these churches have been renovated and rebuilt in recent years; however, while some have been turned into so-called Red tourism sites, many continue to be used primarily for religious activities, a sign of the strength of Sichuan’s Catholic community.

“Generations of Chinese students have been taught the dark side of Western missionary activity in China: their arrogance, their imperialist attitudes, and their lack of respect or patience for China’s culture and traditions. Whatever old churches still remain were typically preserved not out of any good will, but because of their historical value, or because the expense of tearing them down outweighed any potential benefit. It is my hope, however, that as time passes, we can approach the past in a more evenhanded way. The history of these churches — and the people, both Chinese and foreign, who built them — is worth preserving.

Catholic Churches in Sichuan

Ma Te wrote in Sixth Tone: “Earlier this year, I set out to tour Sichuan’s Catholic sites, hoping to better understand the religion’s place in Sichuanese history. I began my journey with Dengchigou Church. — the site where, approximately 150 years ago, resident priest Armand David first introduced the Western world to the giant panda. Built in 1839 under the direction of French missionaries in the mountain village of Dengchigou, this church is one of the province’s oldest. Extraordinarily well-preserved, the main building consists of a spacious enclosed Chinese-style courtyard. A traditional tablet hangs above the door, greeting visitors with the words, “Church of the Annunciation” and “All the Earth Doth Worship Thee” in Chinese. Other than the tablet, the only sign that the building houses anything other than a traditional Chinese temple is the tiny, easy-to-miss cross on the roof. [Source: Ma Te, Sixth Tone, November 7, 2018, “Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell]

“The interior of the church, however, is another story: With its vaulted ceilings and carved wooden pillars, it’s all Western. When I visited, there was no priest on the premises, and the building seemed to have been converted into a tourist attraction. Just outside, I found a museum for David and his “discovery” of the giant panda. The exhibit informed me that, in addition to David’s religious responsibilities, he also had a passion for the natural sciences, and his post in Sichuan was in part a scientific research mission. It was while in Dengchigou, in 1869, that he first noticed a giant panda hide hanging on the wall of a farmhouse near the church. Curious, he asked local hunters to bring him a specimen, the skin of which David shipped back to Paris for further research, along with a live deer. Ironically, today David is perhaps better known for the latter discovery — which was named Père David’s deer, in his honor — than the former. It would be years before the giant panda captured the world’s imagination and became the symbol of China that it is today.

“After leaving Dengchigou, I traveled south to the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, where there are two more century-old churches. Built around the same time and by the same priest — Paul Audren, another French missionary — the churches of Huili and Dechang also represent an interesting fusion of Western and Chinese architectural styles. The Huili church keeps the two influences separate. Located in the county seat, the front of the church is made from wood and brick, finished in a French gothic style. The rear bell tower, on the other hand, has the heavy eaves, hexagonal roof, and timber structure characteristic of a traditional Chinese temple. Viewed from the side, this stark split produces quite an effect.

“Built in 1926, the church is well-maintained, and is currently still in use. The church’s backyard houses several small rooms, where believers can meet for choir practice and church activities. While there, I noticed that tourists would occasionally stop in and listen to women playing the piano and singing traditional hymns, but the church itself seemed to be one of the rare few historically significant buildings in China not to have been given over to the local tourism board.

“The Sacred Heart Cathedral in Dechang is in a considerably greater state of disrepair. Like Huili’s church, Sacred Heart’s main building is a hybrid of Chinese and Western styles: The core structure of the cathedral is Western, while the details — especially the roof eaves — are done in a more traditional Chinese style. Located in an old part of town, the church — which was commissioned by Audren and finished in 1908, 20 years before Huili’s structure — is surrounded by run-down houses, a sign that the area is not quite as prosperous as Huili.

“Unlike many other churches in the region, Sacred Heart operated continuously from 1908 until 1950, when the country’s Catholic schools came under government control and all church lands were nationalized. Even after 1950, the community continued to hold occasional services until the anti-religious campaigns of the Cultural Revolution broke out in the mid-1960s. The church would not reopen its doors until 1982. It’s back in use today, but remains a shell of its former self.

Two Catholic Churches in China: the Official One and the Underground One

The Catholic Church in China is divided into two communities: an "official" church answerable to the Party, and an "underground" church that swears allegiance only to the pope in Rome. The most contentious issue between them is which side controls the ordination of bishops. [Source: Sui-Lee Wee, Reuters, March 31, 2014 /+/]

China severed relations with the Holy See in 1951 after the officially atheistic Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope's authority. The Communist Party tried to force Catholics to join the Catholic Patriotic Association when it was established in 1957. Clergy and laity who refused to renounce ties with the Vatican were imprisoned, beaten and some were even killed. The campaign drove Catholics loyal to the pope underground, causing a split that remains today. No pope has ever visited China. Beijing refused to let St. John Paul II’s plane fly overhead when he last visited the Far East, a 1989 trip to South Korea. /+/

China persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom and freeing imprisoned priests in the late 1970s. Relations have been tense over Beijing's demand that it have the right to appoint bishops, even those unacceptable to the Vatican. The Holy See says that key prerogative belongs to it alone and the disagreement tops the list of those blocking reconciliation. "It is really about power," one Chinese Catholic told The Telegraph. "It is all about control and a fear of Rome's influence. We can be good Catholics and good Chinese citizens. We love our country. But in this country you can only love the country if you also love the Party. Many Chinese Catholics love the country but not the Party."

Sui-Lee Wee of Reuters wrote: “Nearly six decades of state control and sometimes brutal oppression has failed to eradicate the underground Catholic community. Membership today is about evenly divided between those who attend China's official and underground churches. The number of Catholics has risen from an estimated 8 million in 1988 to about 12 million today, according to Anthony Lam, a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, an organ of the Diocese of Hong Kong./+/

“China's State Administration for Religious Affairs counts 5.3 million Catholics as belonging to the Patriotic Association, which oversees 70 bishops and approximately 6,000 churches nationwide. But the lines are beginning to blur. Many underground churches are allowed to operate with the tacit approval of local officials. A new generation of Catholics, less angered by a bitter past, will go to Mass at both underground and official churches. For Beijing, the ordination of bishops in the roughly 110 bishop seats in China is its main lever of control over the church. Rome, however, sees the ordination of "illicit" bishops as a trend that will weaken the validity of the Catholic Church in China.” /+/

Tom Phillips wrote in The Telegraph, “The two sides have been at loggerheads for decades over whether Chinese Catholics owe their allegiance to the Vatican or to Beijing. In the years leading up to 2010, negotiations between the two sides over the appointment of bishops one of the biggest sticking points to improved relations had appeared to be bearing fruits, church members and experts said. However, since then at least four bishops have been appointed by the Patriotic Association without the green light from the Vatican causing talks to break down. The current crisis in Shanghai has aggravated the situation even further. [Source: Tom Phillips, The Telegraph, July 12, 2013 |]

The Cizhong Catholic community has no permanent priest. The church is decorated with lotus flows and yin and yang symbols. Christian hymns are sung to Tibetan highland melodies and communion is performed with wine made from locally- grown grapes. Mass features a dance around a bonfire, presided over by a priest that comes to the village only two or three times annually. Christmas also is celebrated with dancing around a bonfire.

Vatican and Beijing

The government and the Holy See have not established diplomatic relations, and the Vatican has no representative in the country. The CPA does not recognize the authority of the Holy See to appoint bishops; approximately 40 Catholic bishops remain independent of the CPA and operate unofficially. In April the CPA announced the Regulation on the Election and Consecration of Bishops, requiring candidate bishops to publicly pledge support for the CCP. The CPA allows the Vatican discreet input into selecting some bishops, and an estimated 90 percent of CPA bishops have reconciled with the Vatican. Nevertheless, in some locations local authorities reportedly pressure unregistered Catholic priests and believers to renounce all ordinations approved by the Holy See. Most of the Catholic bishops previously appointed by the government as CPA bishops later were elevated by the Vatican through apostolic mandates. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 China”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, ]

Catholics are not permitted to recognize the authority of the Pope, and the Vatican is not allowed to appoint bishops. Beijing recognizes the Vatican's spiritual authority but not its political authority. In the 1950s the Communists set up the "Catholic Patriotic Association" to take power away from Rome.

The Vatican has demanded that Catholics in China be given the right to act freely and remain loyal to the pope. It objects to Beijing’s practice of appointing bishops in violation of Catholic church law and rejects Beijing’s old child policy and its position on birth control and abortion. Beijing in turn is angered by the Vatican’s naming of people killed in Chinese anti-foreigner uprisings as saints; its refusal to register with Communist religious bureaucracy; and the fact it has diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Beijing wants the Vatican to cut its ties with Taiwan and to have some say in the appointment of bishops as Napoleon and France did. The Vatican wants the two Catholic churches in China—the state sanctioned one and the unofficial one’to be unified. They push for the Vietnamese or Cuban model which give the church some autonomy under Communist regimes.

Relations Between the Beijing-Backed Church and the Pope-Backed Church

Sui-Lee Wee of Reuters wrote: “For most since the early 2000s, the party and the Vatican tried to accommodate each other's views on the crucial issue of bishop appointments (except in 2006 when the two sides clashed over the appointment of three bishops). A bishop in China's official church is supposed to be "elected" by local priests, nuns and some laymen, and the government and the Vatican usually agreed on the choice. [Source: Sui-Lee Wee, Reuters, March 31, 2014 /+/]

“That arrangement began to break down in 2010, when the Patriotic Association appointed four bishops who had not been approved by the Vatican. Rome excommunicated three of them, a move that hadn't been taken against a Chinese bishop since 1951. Beijing called the excommunications "unreasonable and rude". After that, local authorities sent police to escort Vatican-appointed bishops to attend official church ordinations and detained other bishops loyal to Rome ahead of the ceremonies. /+/

“Beijing has to take a stricter line with Catholics than other religions because of past actions by the church, Patriotic Association's honorary chairman Anthony Liu said, referring to former Pope John Paul's sweeping apology in 2000 for the Church's history of violence, persecution and blunders. "Especially now that foreign ruling powers want to contain the development of China, they must also want to use religion to sow discord," Liu said. /+/

“Since the Vatican and China have no official ties, unofficial emissaries from Beijing pass messages to the Vatican either directly to Rome or through the Vatican's Charge d'Affaires in Hong Kong. The emissaries are in contact with government or Communist Party authorities in China, said Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, from Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, who has previously acted as an unofficial emissary between Rome and Beijing. /+/

“For the Vatican, the stakes in China are enormous: A population of nearly 1.4 billion lives in a society that hungers for spirituality at a time when Catholicism's traditional stronghold in Europe is flagging. The stakes are high for the Communist Party, too.

Popes and China

Pope John Paul II never visited China even though he said he wanted to. In January 1994, he offered to recognize the country's official church in return for acknowledgment by the Chinese government of papal authority over China's Catholics. Beijing refused. There were plans for Pope John Paul II to conduct mass at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing in 2000 but those plans fell through over a dispute regarding Beijing’s approval of bishops. Beijing even turned down a Vatican request to allow the Pope to visit Hong Kong.

Beijing never trusted Pope John Paul II because of his firm anti-Communist stances and his anti-Communist activities in Poland. Chinese leader were very upset when Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese martyrs. The new saints, China's first, included 87 Chinese and 33 missionaries killed between 1648 and 1930. Beijing described most of them as "evil-doing sinners" who were executed for breaking the law.

Even so China’s state Catholic church honored Pope John Paul after his death in April 2005. More than 300 parishioners showed up to pay their respects at a cathedral in Beijing and priests praised John Paul for “a man of peace" who "made a great contribution to the church.”

In March 2006, while installing 15 new cardinals., Pope Benedict XVI read a special prayer for religious freedom in China. He has praised underground church members and said they should unite with official state-run Catholic church members

Pope Francis and China

In August 2014, Associated Press reported: “Pope Francis says he wants dialogue with China and the only thing he asks in return is for the Catholic Church to be able to operate freely. The pope told reporters the church “only asks to have freedom to do its work. No other conditions.” “The Holy See is open to all contacts,” he said. “Because it has true esteem for the Chinese people.” In remarks to reporters returning to Rome from South Korea, Francis recounted how he had a front-row seat to history when his Alitalia charter flew through Chinese airspace en route to South Korea. [Source: Associated Press, August 19, 2014]

Traditionally, popes send telegrams of greetings to heads of state when they enter their airspace. This flight, however, marked the first time a pope had flown over China. The Aug. 14 flight, then, gave Francis a rare opportunity to reach out to Chinese President Xi Jinping, albeit from 35,000 feet. Francis recalled he was in the cockpit chatting with the pilots when the plane was about 10 minutes out of Chinese airspace and it was time to request permission from the air traffic control tower to continue on. “I was a witness to this,” Francis marveled. “And then the pilot said, ‘And now the telegram goes out.’”

After witnessing that, the pope returned to his seat and prayed. “I prayed so much for the beautiful and noble Chinese people,” he said. He said he would love to visit China: “Absolutely. Tomorrow!” Francis sent Xi a similar telegram Monday heading back to Rome: “I wish to renew to your excellency and your fellow citizens the assurance of my best wishes, as I invoke divine blessings upon your land.”

Sui-Lee Wee of Reuters wrote: “The change of leadership in Rome may help, Vatican watchers say. They note that Pope Francis is a Jesuit, the first-ever pontiff from the Catholic order that established the church in China. According to Cardinal Filoni, Pope Francis has in his room a statue of "Our Lady of Sheshan" - the Chinese icon of Mother Mary whose main shrine is at the seminary outside Shanghai. Archbishop Parolin, the new secretary of state, was the Vatican's chief negotiator with China in 2007. "The Vatican, by appointing this man as a secretary of state, that in itself is a statement that it wants dialogue, and I think China understands this," said the Catholic University of Leuven's Heyndrickx. [Source: Sui-Lee Wee, Reuters, March 31, 2014 /+/]

“The Vatican has previously signaled a willingness to cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan - a condition China has imposed for the resumption of diplomatic ties with the Holy See. In 2005, the-then Vatican Secretary of State, Angelo Sodano, said the Vatican was ready to move its diplomatic office from Taiwan to Beijing if China agreed to uphold religious freedom. A Taiwanese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Anna Kao, said Taiwan and the Vatican maintain official diplomatic ties and Taipei has "heard no news to the contrary". /+/

Chinese Catholics Cheer Pope Francis in South Korea

In August 2014, Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press reported: “Chinese Catholics cheered Pope Francis' visit to neighboring South Korea, saying they hoped his trip to their region would help end the estrangement between Beijing and the Vatican. China's entirely state-run media imposed a virtual news blackout on the visit, ensuring the public at large would know little about Francis' activities. In another sign of Beijing's continuing ambivalence toward relations with the Holy See, reports said officials were preventing some Chinese Catholics and clergy from taking part in the activities in South Korea under threat of reprisals. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, August 15, 2014 /=]

“South Korean organizers of the pope's visit also expressed regret that some young Chinese Catholics had been prevented from traveling to South Korea to join in the festivities due to what they called the "complicated situation within China."The Catholic website AsiaNews said about 80 young people were staying away from the events after warnings of unspecified consequences if they participated. It said a number of Chinese priests residing in South Korea had also been called home before Francis' arrival. /=\

“Rev. Mathew Zhen Xuebin, secretary general of the Beijing diocese. Zhen said he had no information about the numbers of Chinese participants or any being blocked from traveling. Parishioners at Beijing's weather-beaten 400-year-old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception said they were following Francis' visit as best they could. Maria Mian, a retired teacher in her 70s, said she felt his presence in Asia would give impetus to a greater Beijing-Vatican dialogue, although she added, "Things will come along gradually." Night watchman Xu Yong, 35, said he was hoping for some form of divine intervention. "This is not something that men can solve on their own," Xu said. "We will need God's help." /=\

Catholic laypeople and priests who flocked to a Mass at Beijing's oldest church said they felt closer to the pope. All expressed hopes for a papal visit in the not-too-distant future. "I believe this is a step forward in advancing communication," Rev. Zhen said. "We have hope that one day the two countries of China and the Vatican will establish diplomatic ties and that the pope will be able to visit China." /=\

“In a telling sign that Francis is toeing a very delicate political line with China, he artfully dodged a question posed to him by a young man from Hong Kong about what could be done to help the faithful in mainland China. The question was one of several posed to the pope during an informal gathering in Solmoe, South Korea, where young Catholics from across the region were gathered for an Asian Catholic youth festival.” Reporters' questions were avoided about “whether a China leg was ever in the cards for this trip or that some informal talks were held earlier this summer between Beijing and the Holy See. News of the pope's message went virtually unreported in China's state-controlled media, although several people attending Mass said they had read about it on the Internet in reports that were later taken down.

Choosing Bishops in China

The Vatican has said it wants control over the section of bishops although it willing to consider candidates suggested by the government and local diocese. Under an informal system, the Chinese government sometimes names clerics it knows have already been approved by the Vatican. When it unilaterally chooses its own bishops the Vatican gets upset.

The right to appoint bishops has been a key to the Vatican to ensure control and orthodoxy over far-flung communities of believers for centuries. In the same vein, China's communist government wants to make sure Catholics remain loyal to Beijing, not a foreign power. Bishops appointe dby Beijing are forbidden according to the Vatican from “carrying out any ministry or office.” It would be especially scandalous if such a bishop joined as a co-consecrating bishop or a principal consecrator of another bishop. [Source: AP, November 29, 2011]

Over the last decade, Beijing and the Vatican have attempted quietly in fits and starts to work out an agreement on clerical appointments. China is sincere about improving relations with the Vatican and recent ordinations of bishops in China "promotes the healthy development of Chinese Catholicism," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in November 2011.

In June 2005, Shanghai consecrated a new bishop, Joseph Xing Wenzhi. Both Rome and Beijing tacitly approved the choice. Xing was officially appointed auxiliary bishop but he is the successor to Shanghai Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, who was 89 in 2005 and giving up many of his duties. In his vows Xing promised to “loyally serve” the pope but also vowed to work for “social stability” and a “well-off society” in accordance with the official Communist Party line. In September 2005, Beijing rejected an invitation from the Vatican for four Chinese bishops to visit Rome.

In 2006, China appointed three bishops without Vatican approval: Ma Yinglin in Kunming, Liu Xinhong in Wuhu in Anhui and Wang Renlei in Jiangsu Province. These moves were seen as set back to warming relations between China and the Vatican. In recent years most new bishops had received Vatican approval. In 2007, China appointed three bishops with Vatican approval; Joseph Li Shah to the important 400-year-old cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing and two ther bishops in Guangzhou and Hebei Province. The move helped to ease tensions between Beijing and the Vatican.

Joseph Zen Zekiun, the bishop of Hong Kong, is an outspoken critic of the lack of religious freedom in China. He was appointed to cardinal by the Vatican in 2006.

Warming Relations Between the Vatican and Beijing

The death of Pope John Paul II has been viewed as an opportunity for Beijing and the Vatican to improve relations. Both official and unofficial Catholics united in mourning. The government did not try to break up gatherings to mark his death. Many think that Beijing and the Vatican will reach a compromise in which the Vatican will end formal ties with Taiwan and Beijing in turn will give the Vatican more say on church affairs in China. On the issue of choosing bishops, the Vatican would choose three candidates allowing Beijing to chose one.

Irregular contacts have been made between Beijing and the Vatican. The biggest stumbling point to better relations is a Beijing demand that the Vatican stop interfering with China’s “internal affairs.” Many analysts believe that Beijing is not as into improving relations as the Vatican and that has no intention of making concessions, preferring to maintain the status quo making an agreement on their terms.

Pope Benedict XVI has said it was ti,e for the two Catholic churches in China to unify. unify. On October 2005, the pope’s foreign minister said the Vatican was willing to meet one of Beijing’s conditions: ending its relationship with Taiwan and moving its embassy from Taiwan to China but also added that Beijing must recognize religious freedom and treat the Vatican fairly.

In December 2006, Beijing and the Vatican exchanged criticisms over China’s selection of a new bishop but also hinted that they might resolve their long-running dispute in the near future. The criticism expressed by each side were milder than in the past and a Beijing official said, “The Chinese government has a positive attitude towards improving relations with the Vatican, and we want to have a constructive dialogue on the consecration of bishops.”

In January 2007, the Vatican issued a statement that it wanted a “respectful and constructive dialogue” to rebuild diplomatic ties with Beijing. The person designated to be the next cardinal of Hong Kong attended the Olympics. This was seen as further thawing between Beijing and the Vatican.

In May 2008, the Vatican hosted a concert by the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra, indicating a further warming of relations with Beijing.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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