The Joys of China (Part 2)

Bishop «O» Fosters Church-State Dialogue

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By Mark Miravalle

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio, NOV. 10, 2008 ( We now enter the company of a man of remarkable humility who perseveres under the most delicate of ecclesio-political situations. He is the Catholic bishop of a diocese in China that I must refrain from naming.

As with the «Seven Sorrows» text, we here must hold back any specifics that could in any way endanger our Chinese Catholic brothers and sisters. Let us call him Bishop “O” for “open” or above-ground church.

This particular bishop was appointed by the Vatican and is in complete conformity with and obedience to the Holy Father (Pope Benedict’s pictures are present throughout his diocesan offices, his seminaries, and even the home of his elderly parents). He is also registered with the government in what they designate as the “Catholic Patriotic Church.” Pope Benedict’s 2007 Letter to the Chinese Church and People made clear that Catholic bishops appointed by Rome could also register with the Patriotic Church Association without any intrinsic violation to the allegiance and fidelity to the Holy Father and the Holy See. This bishop has done just that. And in striving to hold the extremely difficult and sensitive balance between complete doctrinal orthodoxy and papal loyalty on the one hand, and cooperating (without moral compromise) with local government authorities on secondary levels of dialogue and social programs on the other, this clever but innocent shepherd has been able to provide his flock with the spiritual access and social safety which is leading to thousands of adult baptisms throughout his diocese each year.

Upon our arrival, we were immediately introduced to this delicate and sometimes confusing balance when we met with the local county authority and officers of his religious affairs bureau, in the official’s government conference meeting room. We were presented to them as the bishop’s foreign guests.

There was no doubt about who were the authorities and who were the guests, as the government official presided with obvious authority from the other side of the expansive meeting table separating our small group of foreigners from his side, where the government officials sat. We were given a rather formal presentation of the commerce and industrial achievements of the region, along with a brief reference to historical and cultural highpoints. As the presentation began, we were somewhat concerned to see a television camera enter the room. We were being filmed for who knows what end.

At this first encounter, the head official referred to the bishop with obvious respect in word and in manner. This puzzled us, because it seemed out of place in light of the two radically opposing ideologies that the official and bishop represent.

After the presentation, we were taken to various plants of industry to observe firsthand the successful industries of the region, which operate in collaboration with foreign countries. Apart from initial discomfort on both sides of the group, composed of both officials and visitors, (and without applause from the foreigners regarding the ethical concerns of various forms of outsourcing for both China and the foreign countries), a mood of growing familiarity grew between us. We returned to the government building, where, to our surprise, the head official had prepared a formal lunch reception for the guests of the bishop.

Toasts all around

During the meal, rather amazing events unfolded. The head official toasted the bishop, and offered a brief oration on the respect of the bishop by the people of his region. Everyone then drank to this. Local custom called for all to down a small shot glass of what they referred to as «white wine,» which was in fact a hard alcohol similar to a form of grappa, the alcohol strength of which could probably propel several large trucks. Then the religious affairs officer (responsible, keep in mind, for the supervision and oftentimes suppression of unapproved religious activity in the county) stood up, proposed another toast to the bishop, and publicly witnessed to the fact that he had begun attending Mass at the bishop’s cathedral on Sundays, and that the bishop personally was teaching him how to pray! All drink to this.

By the end of the meal, four government officials have toasted the bishop and his Roman Catholic guests, and have gone around the table and individually exchanged toasts and corresponding shots of Chinese moonshine with each Catholic guest present. After the first two shots, refilled immediately following each toast by the many female waitresses, I discretely poured my liquor into my soup bowl and in turn filled it with water in order to maintain custom and consciousness at this remarkable meal.

At this point, you may have circling in your mind certain questions that I had in mine as all this was taking place. Wait a minute! Aren’t these the bad guys? Aren’t these the Communist party members who are implementing the Beijing policies of one child per family, forced abortion, and general persecution of the Church? Should we be cooperating with these guys and the government they represent? The temptation to pre-judge and to spontaneously condemn was great.

The answer: «Shi he bu shi.» Yes and No.

As the bishop commented at one point, «There is a saying here that each diocese in China is like living in its own country.» Every diocese in China has its own unique situation in relation to the local government. While it can be said that most dioceses experience consistent persecution from the local government as a logical application of the Beijing central government policies against religious freedom and personal/family dignity, (however slightly they may be improving on the federal level), nonetheless there are exceptions where local officials have providentially seen the social good effected by the Catholic Church’s presence in the region, and have decided to grant increased, though still restricted, liberty and even some form of respect to the Catholic presence in their county.

Selling out?

Is this a case of inordinate cooperation with an evil authority? In what way is the bishop’s approach different from an unacceptable form of moral cooperation with unjust authority — a cooperation embodying a consequentialist, the-end-justifies-the-means, type of activity, which St. Paul and the Church rightly condemn?

As St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, we must always make key distinctions regarding matters of faith and morals. The bishop is not offering any proximate moral cooperation to anything intrinsically evil that may be enacted by the local government and its officers of religious oversight. Rather, he is cooperating in areas of dialogue between state and Church, coupled with encouraging the solutions to local social problems and legitimate civil advancements for the county, and this has earned the local authorities’ trust of the bishop — a trust which has led to unique opportunities for previously underground Catholics to worship in public and for other Chinese of the area to be exposed to the wonders of Catholic mystery and beauty, for the salvation of their families and friends.

Without any condoning of the grave violations of personal and religious rights, which continue and must be responded to spiritually and politically for the sake of all our Chinese brothers and sisters on both federal and local governmental levels, the Holy Spirit appears to be powerfully and discretely guiding this bishop (and perhaps others like him) to find the chink in the Dragon’s armor, and to allow the saving blood and water from the pierced side of Christ to flow through that chink and into the hearts of the people of his region.

Clearly, the level of respect and even praise offered by the local government for this particular bishop must be seen as exceptionally rare in China, particularly in light of this bishop’s refusal of any moral compromise of Church teaching or practice. But this bishop has u
sed the local government’s providential honoring of his person and role to full advantage for the Chinese people of God in his diocese.

The array of spiritual fruits emanating from this diocese is nothing short of inspiring. Vocations are strongly on the rise. We visited a minor seminary with nearly 100 young men discerning the priesthood. An order of religious sisters numbered more than 70, with the vast majority younger than 40 years of age, and resplendent with smiling faces and joyful strides in their walk. These sisters as well as other religious of the diocese participate in medical outreach programs and educational services to the people of the region.

Several parishes have had more than 100 adults enter the Catholic faith at Easter, and the bishop has promised his presence at the Christmas and Easter celebrations of parishes with the greatest number of catechumens becoming baptized. The bishop also has an intense program of Catholic evangelization, where catechists are trained to go out two by two, door to door, following the Gospel instruction of the Lord with literal simplicity and profundity. And this, with the permission of the local Communist authorities!

How many dioceses in the Western world, free from any form of Communist domination or harassment, can boast this quantity and quality of ecclesial fruits?

Jesus tells us with Gospel certainty that «each tree is known by its own fruit» (Lk 6:44). He also tells us that the Spirit blows where he wills (cf. Jn 3:8). Although the situation is not typical of most Chinese dioceses, and the bishop’s successes impossible without moral compromise in certain other dioceses, he is, through his humble transparency, leading thousands to the Lord and to the Catholic Church. Joy is also a fruit of the Spirit. This man, in the midst his extraordinary pressures and political tight roping, wears the face of the joyful Christ.

[Part 1 of this article appeared Sunday ( Part 3 will appear Tuesday.]

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Mark Miravalle is a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of more than a dozen books on Mariology, and editor of «Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons,» he wrote «The Seven Sorrows of China» in 2007. He is married and has eight children.

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