By Andrea Tornielli
An article published Saturday in the Osservatore Romano communicates news about the Catholic Church in China and information about the pastoral appointments assumed by the Chinese bishops, received in communion with Rome by Pope Francis, on the eve of the signing of the "Provisional Agreement on the appointment of Bishops".
"On 22 September 2018 in Beijing”, reads the article, “the Holy See and the People's Republic of China signed a ‘Provisional Agreement on the appointment of Bishops’. Previously, on 8 September 2018, after much reflection and prayer, the Successor of Peter, in a spirit of great benevolence, welcomed into full ecclesial communion seven Chinese bishops, consecrated without pontifical mandate".
"In this context”, continues the article in the Osservatore Romano , “Pope Francis invited all the bishops to renew their total adherence to Christ and the Church. He reminded them that, as they are part of the Chinese people, they are bound to show respect and loyalty towards the civil authorities and, as bishops, are called to be faithful to the Gospel, according to what Jesus Himself teaches: ‘Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God’ (Mt 22, 21)".
The article also states that the Pope "assigned to each bishop a diocesan pastoral task, taking due account of the particular and complex local situations. Therefore, Msgr. Joseph Guo Jincai was called to carry out his episcopal ministry as first bishop of Chengde; Msgr. Joseph Huang Bingzhang, as bishop of Shantou; Msgr. Joseph Liu Xinhong, as bishop of Anhui; Msgr. Joseph Ma Yinglin, as Bishop of Kunming; Mgr. Joseph Yue Fusheng, as Bishop of Heilongjiang; Mgr. Vincent Zhan Silu, as Bishop of Funing/Mindong; and Mgr. Paul Lei Shiyin, as Bishop of Leshan. Vincent Guo Xijin assumed the office of Auxiliary Bishop of Funing/Mindong, and Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian assumed the title of Emeritus Bishop of Shantou.
With regard to their pastoral task, the nine bishops "received the communication of the Holy See on 12 December 2018 in Beijing, in the context of a sober ceremony marked by intense ecclesial communion which concluded with the praying of the Our Father and the singing of the Hail Mary according to a traditional Chinese melody".
Finally, the article defines as "a fact of great ecclesial importance that Msgr. Anthony Tu Shihua, O.F.M., a few months before his death on January 4, 2017, asked to be readmitted into full communion with the Successor of Peter, who welcomed him with the title of Bishop Emeritus of Puqi”.
To understand the ecclesial and pastoral significance of these events, it is appropriate to refer to what Pope Francis stressed in his "Message to the Catholics of China and to the Universal Church", of 26 September 2018: "Precisely for the sake of supporting and promoting the preaching of the Gospel in China and reestablishing full and visible unity in the Church, it was essential, before all else, to deal with the issue of the appointment of bishops. Regrettably, as we know, the recent history of the Catholic Church in China has been marked by deep and painful tensions, hurts and divisions, centred especially on the figure of the bishop as the guardian of the authenticity of the faith and as guarantor of ecclesial communion". Now it is important to live in unity among Catholics and to open “a phase of greater fraternal collaboration, in order to renew our commitment to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel. For the Church exists for the sake of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and to the forgiving and saving love of the Father".
The Holy See, concludes the article published in the Osservatore Romano, "continues to be committed to continuing the path of dialogue, with a view to gradually resolving, with an attitude of mutual understanding and far-sighted patience, the various problems that still exist, beginning with the civil recognition of the ‘unofficial’ clergy, in order to make the life of the Catholic Church in China increasingly normal".
In an interview, published by the Vatican newspaper in its Saturday February 2nd edition, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, emphasizes the pastoral value of the "Provisional Agreement on the appointmemt of Bishops". Quoting Pope Francis’ Message to the Catholics of China, the Cardinal recalls how "the Provisional Agreement is the fruit of the lengthy and complex institutional dialogue between the Holy See and the Chinese authorities, initiated by Saint John Paul II and continued by Pope Benedict XVI. Through this process, the Holy See has desired – and continues to desire – only to attain the Church’s specific and pastoral aims, namely, to support and advance the preaching of the Gospel, and to reestablish and preserve the full and visible unity of the Catholic community in China".
“While sharing some concerns expressed by many parties because of the difficulties that still remain, and of those that may arise on the journey", Cardinal Filoni says, "I feel that in the Catholic Church in China there is a great expectation of reconciliation, unity, and renewal, for a more decisive revival of the work of evangelization. We cannot stay still in a world that, from many perspectives, is running at a supersonic pace, yet, at the same time, experiences the urgent need to rediscover the spiritual and human values that give firm hope to people’s lives and create a more cohesive society. In a word, this is what Christianity can offer to present-day China".
The Cardinal recalls that many bishops, priests, religious and lay people want the Church in China to “return to a sense of ‘normality’ within the Catholic Church". He describes the "Provisional Agreement” as being "of historical significance" and explains that: “In the light of the Agreement that recognizes the specific role of the Pope, the so-called ‘principle of independence’ now needs to be reinterpreted in view of the relationship between the legitimate pastoral autonomy of the Church in China and the indispensable communion with the Successor of Peter”. Therefore, says the Cardinal, “I hope not to hear or read about local situations in which the Agreement is exploited to compel people to do what is not even required by Chinese law, such as joining the Patriotic Association”.
With regard to the problems still existing between the so-called "officialˮ" and the so-called "clandestineˮ communities, Cardinal Filoni stresses: “There is above-all the need to rebuild trust, perhaps the most difficult aspect, toward ecclesiastical and civil authorities entrusted with religious matters, as well as between the so-called official and unofficial ecclesial currents. It is not about establishing who wins or who loses, who is right or wrong. In the sixty years since the creation of the Patriotic Association, everyone, in perhaps an unequal and dramatic way, has suffered, both in a physical and moral sense. Nor can we ignore the interior anguish of those who had adhered to, or had been bound by the principle of ‘independence’, and therefore brought about a rupturing of relations with the Apostolic See”.
In the interview, Cardinal Filoni continues: “I realize that someone could think that, in this phase, the Apostolic See seems to be asking for a unilateral sacrifice, that is, only from the members of the underground community, who should, one might say, be ‘made official’, while nothing is requested of the ‘official’ members. The issue should not be put in these terms; in fact, it is not about the ‘underground’ surrendering to the ‘official’ or to the civil authorities, regardless of the appearance, nor of a victory over the non-official community. From a more ecclesial perspective, we cannot speak about competition or who is right, but of brothers and sisters in the faith, who all find themselves in a common House”.
In fact, "In the Holy See’s view, it has always been held that in China there are not two Churches, a ‘patriotic Church’ and a ‘faithful Church’ (as used in common parlance). In China, the Church is one, and the wounds that were inflicted upon her come both from within and without. The sensus fidei of the People of God has saved the Church in China from schism. In the current context, we can say that efforts have been made to alleviate the sufferings. It is a challenging task and will require everyone’s contribution to achieve it fully”.
The Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples says he understands the doubts and perplexities expressed after the signing of the Provisional Agreement. However, he adds: “I do not share the attitude of those who, while having their legitimate reservations, not only do not strive to understand others’ views, but most importantly run the risk of rowing out of sync within the ship of Peter. The Pope, together with his coworkers, has done, is doing, and will do, all that is possible to be close to the Church in China”.
Finally, Cardinal Filoni says: "As we know, the Chinese like images. To complete my thought, I would like to give them yet another one: In order to give stability to a tripod, three supports are needed. A tripod, in fact, does not rest upon two legs, that is, on the arrangement between the Holy See and the Chinese government. There needs to be a third support, namely the participation and the contribution of the faithful in China, as well as that of the Catholic community in the diaspora. Only with the contribution of all can the Church of tomorrow be built up, while respecting freedoms, also on the part of the civil Authorities, after sixty years of suffering, division, and misunderstandings within the Catholic community. The Church, therefore, needs the free and fruitful participation of all in order to construct civil, social, and religious harmony, as well as for the proclamation of the Gospel”.