Commonly, outside people tend to adopt a polarised view of things when they talk about the current situation of the Church in China. They speak about the “open” or “official” Church, and the “underground” Church loyal to the Pope and to the Vatican. But this way of seeing things – as black and white – does not accurately represent the real situation of the Church today on the mainland. This is not to pretend that things are not complicated or to deny that there is a very active “underground” presence in certain areas of China, such as in Fujian Province in the south, in Zhejiang and Hebei Provinces, and in Shanghai city. But underneath the many difficulties facing Catholic people in China, the Church is growing rapidly and unexpectedly; things are certainly developing.
Some figures are relevant here. Before the Communist government came to power in 1949, there were some 3 million Catholics in China. In spite of the difficulties that followed – the destruction of churches, persecution and suffering of the faithful, even death for some - the Church has managed to grow to its present 12 million people. China is a living witness to that truth stated by Tertullian, the early Christian writer, that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” We are seeing the real fruit of the great suffering of those confined in government prisons and slave-labour camps, and of those faithful Catholics who were murdered for the faith in various parts of the country during the years of great political and social turbulence.
Another consoling fact is that of the 120 or so dioceses in China, more than 90 Bishops are now recognised by Rome, by the Pope. The usual practice today is for the Church in China to seek the approval of Rome secretly before proceeding with the episcopal ordination of any candidate. Few are willing to proceed to ordain an elected candidate for Bishop without this approval.
In Pope Benedict’s Letter to the Church in China in 2007, Chinese Catholics are urged to unite the so-called “open” and “underground” communities (6.4; 7.9). Claims made by entities such as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association desired by the Government, which place themselves above the Bishops and claim to guide the life of the Church, are inconsistent with Catholic teaching (7.5-6). Bishops must be in communion with each other and with the Pope (5.4). The present College of Chinese Bishops is not recognised by Rome as an Episcopal Conference (8.14). The Holy Father granted full and legitimate episcopal jurisdiction to those bishops who had been consecrated without the prior approval of Rome. Bishops who were ordained bishops without the approval of the Pope were ordained illegitimately but validly, and priestly ordinations by these Bishops, and the sacraments they confer as Bishops and priests, are also valid (10.6). It is licit to celebrate the Eucharist with priests in communion with Rome, even if they are recognised by the civil authorities and keep a relationship with entities approved by the State (10.4).
Concluding his Letter to the Church in China, Pope Benedict nominated 24 May each year, the celebration of Mary Help of Christians, as an annual day of prayer for the Church in China. The choice of this day may be related to the Shrine to Mary under this title at Sheshan, outside Shanghai. As Mary Help of Christians is the national Patroness of Australia, this celebration each year may help to establish a special bond between the Catholic people of Australia and China. The Australian Church this year is joining in world-wide celebrations to mark the fourth centenary of the death in May 1610, of the famous Italian Jesuit missionary to China, Father Matteo Ricci.
~ Fr Paschal Chang, O.F.M.
Feb 9, 2010