The Roman Catholic Church at the Vatican has shocked its communities in China by asking two “underground” bishops by complying to the country’s rulers. Journalist Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, tries to make sense out of the move for the New York Times.
In a statement released on Monday, the former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, confirmed the broad outlines of the Vatican’s recent efforts, writing that he traveled to Rome this month to personally deliver to the pope a letter from an underground bishop who had refused to resign.
The letter came from Bishop Zhuang Jianjian of the southern Chinese city of Shantou, an 88-year-old who had been secretly ordained in 2006 with Vatican approval.
In December, Bishop Zhuang was escorted by government officials to Beijing, where he was taken to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse to meet a papal delegation believed to have been headed by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, who leads the Vatican’s China negotiating team…
In his statement on Monday, Cardinal Zen said that when he delivered Bishop Zhuang’s letter to the pope, the pontiff expressed sympathy for the underground bishops, telling the cardinal that his negotiators should not “create another Mindszenty case,” a reference to a pro-democracy bishop in Hungary who was forced out of his country in 1956 and replaced with a person acceptable to the government.
Cardinal Zen wrote that he had been heartened by the words. “I was there in the presence of the Holy Father representing my suffering brothers in China,” he said. “His words should be rightly understood as of consolation and encouragement more for them than for me.”
The Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, the editor of Asianews.it, said the developments showed that Vatican negotiators were prepared to give the Chinese government “carte blanche, and accept all requests and pose no opposition on questions that affect the church in China.”
But Father Cervellera said the pope’s reported comments to Cardinal Zen may have signaled that he was not entirely in agreement with his negotiators.
People following the issue said that the highly unusual series of events showed how badly the Vatican wanted a deal.
“The fact that both sides can carry on the negotiation till now shows that the Vatican must consider this a rare opportunity,” said Wang Meixiu, a researcher on Chinese Catholicism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
Dr. Chen (Dr. Chen Tsung-ming, research director at the Ferdinand Verbiest Institute) in Belgium said that one reason for the Vatican’s eagerness was a sense that the faith had been growing relatively slowly compared with other religions in China. While the number of Protestants has grown from one million in 1949 to at least 50 million today, the number of Catholics has largely tracked population growth, increasing from three million in that period to at most 12 million today, in part because of the schism in the Chinese Catholic Church.
The pope’s background as a priest in the Society of Jesus may also play a role, Dr. Chen said. Jesuits arrived in China more than 400 years ago, establishing a permanent presence for the church on the mainland after several failed efforts in earlier centuries. But they did so by being extremely flexible and conforming to local norms — a point that may be informing the pope’s negotiating approach.
“He has a sense of mission,” Dr. Chen said. “There’s a historic responsibility.”
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