(ZENIT News / Roma, 26.09.2022).- Four years ago, on September 22, 2018, representatives of the Holy See and the government of the People’s Republic of China signed the Provisional Agreement on the appointment of Chinese Catholic bishops in Beijing. The Agreement provided for a period of application ad experimentum of two years. In October 2020, the validity of the agreement was extended for another two years.
Today, as the deadline for the first extension nears, public statements by Pope Francis and Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin have hinted at a positive intention on the part of the Holy See to continue the process of negotiation, as well as the request to see the agreement implemented in due time and to discuss the margins of progressive improvement, with the sole aim of entrusting the pastoral office to worthy and suitable bishops.
To grasp the reasons of the Pope’s approach, as well as that of his collaborators, it is enough to keep in mind the recent history of Catholicism in China and recognize what has been been compass that has guided the steps of the Holy See during decades dealing with the affairs of Chinese Catholics.
Since the signing of the agreement, illegitimate episcopal ordinations have no longer occurred in China, those celebrated without papal consent, which had caused painful lacerations among Chinese Catholics since the late 1950s.
In the last four years, six new Catholic episcopal ordinations have taken place in China, with procedures that also involve the issue of the Papal bull of appointment. At the same time, six so-called “clandestine” bishops, consecrated in the past without following the protocols imposed by the Chinese apparatus, also requested and obtained public recognition of their role by the political authorities in Beijing. Small numbers, considering the number of Catholic dioceses in China that are vacant or headed by very elderly bishops. But all the Chinese Catholic bishops in China today are in full and public communion with the bishop of Rome.
The one currently in force with the Chinese authorities is not comparable to the models of agreement reached by the Holy See with other governments (the lastest being the one signed with Kazakhstan on the occasion of Pope Francis’ recent apostolic visit to the Central Asian country) to ensure legal recognition and spaces of agility to Church institutions and pastoral agents in the different national contexts.
The Agreement on the appointment of Chinese bishops touches the deepest fibers of the apostolic nature of the Church and the very dynamism of her sacramental life. The issue addressed in the Agreement concerns the faith of Chinese Catholics, and the suffering caused by the ecclesial lacerations which, in recent decades, have divided clergy and laity, communities and families themselves. The content of the agreement concerns the memory of the martyrs and the validity of the sacraments celebrated in parishes, chapels and homes in the People’s Republic of China. Goods that belong to a different order from those that are usually affected by the agreements signed by the Holy See with governments and sovereign entities.
The sacramentality and apostolicity of the Church recognized, preserved and lived in the pastoral framework of the ecclesial life of each Chinese parish, and the full communion of all bishops with the Bishop of Rome cannot be described as “disappointing” from the point of view of the Holy See, especially if one bears in mind at least a little of the history from which one comes.
In the dominant representations of the relations between China and the Vatican, the factors that pushed the Holy See to follow the path it has taken, and the criteria that have guided it in its choices on questions so vital to the sensus Ecclesiae of Chinese Catholics, are generally suppressed and hidden.
Those who qualify the Agreement as an operation with mediocre results, or even an error to be regretted, must not only remove the references to the sacramental dynamics which sustain the Church, but also hide everything that has happened to Chinese Catholicism in the last seventy years.
There have been seasons when, in the official media of the Chinese apparatus, the Bishops and the Vatican were generally defined as the “watchdogs” of Western imperialism. Today, even in the phase of growing international tension between the People’s Republic and Western geopolitical subjects, no one in China thinks of insulting the Pope and the Catholic Church as agents of hostile forces.
As international tensions and power clashes escalate, it is also worthwhile to look with faith at the delicate and providential condition in which the small flock of Chinese Catholics find themselves. It is precisely in this condition, shared with their compatriots, that they can experience the adventure of confession of faith in Christ in today’s China as it is, without privileges, without being pointed at and perceived as a foreign body, as exotic guests or representatives of distant cultures.
Chinese Catholics, like all Chinese citizens, live within the context of the provisions issued by the Chinese civil authorities. As baptized, they follow the faith of the apostles, of which communion with the bishop of Rome, guarantor of the unity of the Church, is an integral part. Their condition can lead to fatigue, disappointment, suffering. But by remaining immanent in this condition leaves the door open to witnessing, to the possibility of confessing faith in Christ, of walking each day in his company in the China of today, such as it is, performing the ordinary gestures linked to the mission of salvation entrusted by Jesus to His own: proclamation of the Gospel, catechism, administration of the sacraments, works of charity for brothers and sisters in need. Acts and words of this current of Christian experience free from all suspicion, which animates the daily life of so many Chinese Catholic communities, and which is also told by so many pieces of news by Fides.
In the happy and troubled events that have marked the last seventy years of Chinese Catholicism, the decisive factor was precisely the faith of the Apostles in which bishops, priests and lay people of that Church were in any case kept. Not out of heroism or stubborn voluntarism, but out of a gift of grace. The last Successors of Peter themselves experienced and attested that their communion with the Catholic Church in China was not to be restored with instruments of juridical supremacy, simply because such communion was already in place, based on the sharing of the same Catholic faith. It is the only treasure to be relied upon, even in the most enigmatic and controversial events of the present time.
The author is a director of the FIDES Agency.