By Alessandro Gisotti
"A door has opened that can hardly be closed." With this effective image, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli summarized the value of the provisional agreement signed in Beijing between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China, a year after that historic event of 22 September 2018.
The opportunity to take stock of the first year since the signing of the Agreement was offered by the presentation in Rome of the book, entitled "The Agreement between the Holy See and China. Chinese Catholics between past and future", edited by Agostino Giovagnoli and Elisa Giunipero, with a preface by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and published by Urbaniana University Press.
The book-launch was moderated by the President of the Community of Sant'Egidio, Marco Impagliazzo, was attended by former Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, the Founder of the Sant’Egidio Community, Andrea Riccardi, and Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, President of the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Foundation.
Particularly significant, in a crowded Benedict XIII Hall, was the presence of the head of the political office and First Secretary of the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Rome. A visible sign of that change in climate, in the name of trust and respect, that was evoked by all the speakers involved in presenting the book.
In the 1980’s, Archbishop Celli was both witness and protagonist, under Pope St John Paul II, of the process of rapprochement between the Holy See and China. In his presentation, he stressed that it is correct to call the Agreement "historic" - even if provisional and limited to the question of episcopal appointments.
Thanks to this Agreement, for the first time in 70 years, all the Chinese bishops are now in communion with the Successor of Peter and with their other brethren in the Episcopate. Archbishop Celli said this Agreement is the fruit of the "operative dialogue" supported and encouraged by the Pope.
This commitment is in profound harmony with the special attention to China and Chinese Catholics shown by the Popes during the twentieth century, and especially by the last two predecessors of Pope Francis. Archbishop Celli, who is also the former Undersecretary for Relations with States, highlighted the importance of the Holy See's Pastoral Guidelines regarding the civil registration of the Clergy in China, published on 28 June last. Archbishop Celli observed how it is understood in this document that love for one's own country, and the equally felt need to be authentically Catholic, are not contradictory.
In his presentation, Romano Prodi, who is also the former President of the European Commission, stressed the social and geopolitical effects of this decision for China, which has undergone dizzying changes over the last 30 years. The signing of the Agreement, he said, was possible at this historic moment because, with the Pontificate of Pope Francis, Chinese authorities perceive the Catholic Church as being increasingly universal and less western. This condition favors a convergence between Rome and Beijing in thus far unexplored areas.
Andrea Riccardi also dwelt on the multilateral significance of the Agreement, noting that it symbolically represents the conclusion of a fracture that had opened in the second half of the 20th Century and continued until the present day. Riccardi, who is the Founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio, said the ability of the Holy See and China to resolve a conflict that lasted 70 years is a sign of "intelligence and flexibility". He credited the skills of two great figures of Vatican diplomacy: Cardinal Achille Silvestrini and Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, both of whom died recently. Riccardi concluded his speech observing that now "Chinese Catholicism must be rethought", it must find a new space for the future.
Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi concluded the presentations by recalling how the path that led to the signing of the Agreement is also marked by many stories of suffering. Fr Lombardi, who is also the former Director of the Vatican Press Office, said one should not consider this historic Agreement the exclusive merit of the Chinese and Vatican leaders.
The Agreement, he pointed out, was born of the loyalty of Chinese Catholics and their bishops over difficult and painful decades. If they had not been spiritually bound in such an extraordinary way to the Pope, he noted, those in authority would not have realized the solidity of this communion, and the conditions would not have been created to reach the signing of the Agreement.