For decades, China’s Catholics – estimated at more than 12 million – have been bitterly divided. Some worship in China’s government-sanctioned Catholic churches, others in “underground” churches loyal to the Vatican.
But three years ago, Pope Benedict XVI sent a letter to Chinese Catholics – the first from a pope in more than a half-century – urging reconciliation. Yet China’s Catholics have struggled to follow these instructions.
Early morning in Sheshan, on the outskirts of Shanghai, Catholics kneel on the ground in front of the pilgrimage shrine to the Virgin Mary, known as the Marian shrine. A cacophony of prayer rises as different groups of pilgrims conduct their services, singing hymns of praise almost loud enough to drown each other out.
Many of these groups of believers refuse to enter the government-sanctioned church nearby. They are part of the “underground” church, even though on this day they are worshipping openly and unimpeded. Some of these believers refuse to take Holy Communion from Beijing’s officially appointed bishops, and instead follow bishops chosen by the Vatican.
On this day, members of the government-sanctioned church are also out in force, holding an official procession up the hill at the Sheshan basilica, a cavernous, red-brick building with stained-glass windows, which was built in 1935.
As choirs of white-robed priests sing hymns to the Virgin Mary, priests carry a statue of Mary out of the church, incense wafting over it, while nuns shower it with flower petals.
The clergy in this procession belong to China’s official Catholic church, sometimes known as the open church. In a bid to assert authority over China’s Catholics, Beijing cut ties with the Vatican in 1951 and began the practice of ordaining its own bishops, some without the approval of the pope.
These parallel acts of worship take place side by side on May 24, which Pope Benedict XVI has designated as the international day of prayer for China. It’s a measure of what it means to be a Catholic in China that in the past this pilgrimage spot has been the subject of intense security by police and security forces, sometimes stopping pilgrims from entering.
This year, however, there is little overt security, signaling a thaw. And that is echoed in some parts of China, where government-sanctioned believers and underground communities are taking steps to bridge that divide.
One Diocese Closes Divide
In Tianjin, 85 miles southeast of Beijing, the Rev. Zhang Liang wears purple robes and celebrates Mass inside an imposing domed cathedral, a state-sanctioned church whose pews are packed with worshippers on a weekday morning. He says the papal letter three years ago was a turning point.
“In the past, [the] Tianjin diocese was divided into above-ground and underground Catholics,” he explains. “The two factions argued, and it was awkward when they met. But Pope Benedict XVI issued a papal letter, and now we in Tianjin have reconciled with each other.”
During Mass, all priests in Tianjin publicly name Stephen Li Side as their bishop; he is a Vatican-appointed bishop unrecognized by Beijing. But in 2008, after the papal letter, the underground bishop himself urged his flock to worship in the state-sanctioned church.
Zhang believes Chinese Catholics should take responsibility for healing the divisions themselves, instead of blaming the government.
“Why do you blame the government? It’s like blaming the sun for not shining on you. If you take one step forward, there’s the sunshine,” he says. “It’s like saying, ‘Will the government let me open this door or not?’ ” Zhang says. “The government doesn’t care whether you open the door. You just think they care. Everyone is so busy prejudging, they don’t dare do anything.”
Still, Some Priests Pay Heavy Price
Just 25 miles away in the suburbs of Tianjin, another priest labors in very different circumstances. The small makeshift church where 83-year-old Melchior Shi Hongzhen has held Mass for the past 20 years sits beside a trash-filled ditch, accompanied by the roar of traffic from a busy highway.
This is a place of exile for Shi, a coadjutor bishop – a rank similar to an auxiliary bishop – recognized by the Vatican in 1982 but not by the Chinese government.
He has paid a heavy price for belonging to the underground church, including 28 years working in a factory at the time of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when religion was outlawed. Other underground bishops have suffered, too, spending years, even decades in prison or under house arrest.
Slightly deaf but cheerful, Shi spends his days reading in his book-filled study. He says he supports the steps toward reconciliation, but he will not join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a quasi-governmental organization that controls the Catholic church in China.
“The patriotic association is an organization of the country, like the Communist Party. You are free to join or not. I didn’t. What I’ve been doing doesn’t harm the country in any way. I just give Mass, baptism and the last rites. That’s all,” Shi says.
Despite the recent moves toward reconciliation in Tianjin, Shi’s personal situation hasn’t changed. He is under a kind of house arrest, effectively a prisoner in his compound. Believers can come and worship with him, but Catholic clergy reportedly cannot. If he wants to leave, he has to ask the police for permission – even, sources say, to administer the last rites.
Despite the efforts of reconciliation, China’s government still fears the influence of the Vatican, and this frail old man is evidently viewed as a threat. He is not keen to talk about the politics of the church in China, but it’s notable that he praises Thomas More, the 16th-century Catholic martyr who was tried and executed for treason for denying that Henry VIII was the supreme head of the church in England.
“You know why Thomas More was sentenced to death?” Shi asks. “Because of his Catholic faith. And he asked the executioner to thank the king for allowing him to be killed by decapitation, instead of being hanged. How amazing to have such love for Catholicism.”
Secret Papal Approval For Beijing’s Priests
But even before the papal letter, things had been quietly changing for China’s Catholics. A reconciliation of sorts has been going on unnoticed, as the vast majority of Beijing’s patriotic bishops have secretly contacted the Vatican and received Rome’s approval.
That was done through emissaries such as the Rev. Michel Marcil. Now in charge of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau, a church-sponsored initiative to foster contacts in China, he has traveled to China more than 30 times since the early 1980s.
“We were meeting priests and bishops who had been consecrated bishop without the permission of Rome,” he says. “They were telling us [that] this kind of condemnation by Rome was the greatest pain they had in all of that. It’s really painful. Some of them would say, ‘I’d like to write to the pope; would you give a letter?’ So this is what a lot of us were doing; we were kind of messengers.”
Now, Rome has recognized 90 percent of Beijing’s open bishops. And since the papal letter, despite the lack of any formal ties, all seven candidates picked by China to become new bishops have also been acceptable to Rome.
“This practice is new,” Marcil says. “Only the test of time will tell if this is a new gentlemen’s agreement between the Vatican and China’s Communist Party. It is not the result of negotiations, but the fruit of having negotiated together and understood better [each other’s] positions.”
It’s significant, too, that despite the lack of any official ties, Pope Benedict’s letter was sent to the Chinese government before being issued to the faithful.
Sister Janet Carroll is a Maryknoll nun who has worked with Chinese Catholics for many years.
“There was a very careful consideration on the part of the Vatican, the Holy See, to make the letter available to the authorities in China, letting them know it would be disseminated among the faithful,” she says.
“That really was a gesture among the Holy See and Vatican officials to relate to the Chinese government and to let them know that they weren’t trying to do any rousing up of the faithful against their own country,” she adds.
‘Ball Is In The Vatican’s Court’
All agree that the Vatican and China are inching closer – even the man some see as the Vatican’s nemesis. Anthony Liu Bainian has been called China’s pope. A former seminarian, this layman is vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association – an organization that Benedict described as “incompatible” with Catholic doctrine in his papal letter.
But Liu sees his post in lofty terms, saying he believes he was chosen by God.
“The Lord needed a bridge between the church in China and those holding political power,” he says. “And I’m a tool sent by the Lord to be that bridge.”
He blames the Vatican for splitting China’s church. China’s position is that the Vatican must cut its diplomatic ties with Taiwan and establish relations with China. He says it should also avoid interfering with China’s internal affairs, including its religious decisions.
His view is that the ball is in the Vatican’s court.
“China is getting stronger and richer, and the Vatican can’t get away from politics. The Vatican is isolated over China’s diplomatic recognition,” Liu says.
“The problem of ordination of bishops doesn’t stem from the Chinese church. If there are no diplomatic ties and we want to choose bishops, how could we report back to the Vatican? If you want to solve the problem, you should have already established diplomatic ties,” he says.
When asked why priests like Melchior Shi Hongzhen remain under house arrest and other underground bishops remain in detention for years, Liu replies, “The country’s laws very clearly say that no matter which faith or organization it is, you need to register with the government. … I’m not the public procurator. But we believe the government deals with these cases according to the law.”
Obstacles On Road To Reconciliation
Politics aside, reconciliation is easier said than done. In Tianjin, one believer in the underground church criticized the moves being made by the divided communities to edge closer together as empty words, calling them “cheating.” Her understanding of the deal among Tianjin Catholics was that the clergy should quit the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which no one has yet done.
There is great confusion about what the pope’s letter actually intended. Some senior clerics, including the influential Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong, have released their own interpretations of the letter. Others mention financial obstacles to reconciliation, particularly problems over the restitution of church property confiscated under communist rule.
In Hebei province, a stronghold of the underground church, an underground nun who didn’t want to give her name expressed her doubts.
“I’m not sure whether the pope understands the situation of underground church people like us. If we all suddenly came out into the open, then it would be out of control. It would cause chaos for the church,” she says. “If you don’t know what reconciliation means, then it’s better not to reconcile.”
Yet the lines between the underground and open churches are blurring. And China’s divided Catholics are groping toward reconciliation, even if that process is slow and painful.