Future of Christians in China (Part 1)

Interview With Italian Journalist Gerolamo Fazzini

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ROME, OCT. 14, 2005 (Zenit.org).- The Church in China exists among lights and shadows, said an Italian reporter who recently spent three weeks in the country meeting with priests, nuns and lay people.

Following his trip, Gerolamo Fazzini, co-editor of Mondo e Missione, of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, wrote six reports, on as many Chinese cities, for the Italian Catholic episcopate’s newspaper Avvenire.

In this interview with ZENIT, Fazzini shares his impressions and assesses some recent events relative to the Church in China. Part 2 appears Sunday.

Q: How do you see the situation of Christians in China? Does optimism or mistrust prevail?

Fazzini: It is difficult to make a global evaluation. The readings oscillate between the optimism of those, such as David Aikman, author of a much-discussed book, «Jesus in Beijing» — which prophesies a luminous future for Christianity in China, especially for Protestants — and the pessimism of those who see an uncertain future, even darker than the present, in light of the fact that the regime does not seem willing to take steps when it comes to religious rights.

The impression received when visiting China is that the two attitudes, hope and disillusion, coexist — just as the wheat of the Church’s vitality coexists with the weeds of political control, which makes itself heard at different times and in different places — but which has not given up the pretension of governing the religious realm — and the internal tensions in the Christian communities, which are not lacking.

Q: In recent weeks there have been two news items reflecting opposite signs: the government’s ban on the participation of four Chinese bishops, invited to the Synod of Bishops by Benedict XVI, and the announcement, by the superior of the Missionaries of Charity, that the government has invited Mother Teresa’s religious to go to China, something long dreamed about by the founder. How should these two contradictory events be interpreted?

Fazzini: One would have to be in the control room to understand the internal dynamics of power.

I will restrict myself to observe that such contradictory and enigmatic signs confirm the fact that something is changing, although it is difficult to make predictions. Personally, I am confident, given that the one who directs history is unpredictable.

Q: Regarding Catholics in China, are there really two Churches? What is the relationship like between them?

Fazzini: It is a known fact that the situation of the Catholic Church has altogether particular features in China. There are two communities — not two Churches; the Church is the same one, that of Christ.

One is the official community, which makes reference to the Chinese Catholics’ Patriotic Association [CCPA], the other is the improperly called «underground» Church, which does not recognize the CCPA’s authority.

The novelty in recent times is that, on both sides, there are those who are working for reconciliation, to overcome the impasse. Not, of course, by putting a headstone on the past or forgetting the many martyrs of yesterday and today, but by seeking at the same time to emerge from a situation that risks fossilization.

Although it is true that the «underground» community is the most scourged by persecution, it must not be thought that for the official community the situation is rose-colored. The latter also suffers limitations in its activity, as is the case of any religious presence in China.

In fact, in different ways, penury of means, lack of personnel, difficulties in resisting the speed of changes of the age, which China is going through, are elements that unite the faithful of the two communities.

Beyond this, I have been able to appreciate in both communities a great desire for reconciliation and unity, despite the internal difficulties that afflict different dioceses. An agreeable surprise for me was to see members of the official community express a great affection for the Pope, and a strong love for the universal Church.

Q: In your trip to China, what impressed you most about the consecrated life of the Church?

Fazzini: The situation of women religious impressed me. Because there is virtually no talk about them yet, they are discreet and humble, but living a pledge.

I met them in Xian, in Shanghai, in Beijing, including some nuns of the region of Hebei, which is to a degree the bastion of the «underground» communities.

They wear their habits only for solemn religious celebrations; usually they wear normal, simple clothes; they could easily be confused with the local women. It is known that women religious in China cannot belong to any international order or congregation.

They all refer to a diocesan institution and depend on the local bishop. Many of them are young, they have great faith but often an inadequate formation.

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