The Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China regarding the appointment of Bishops was signed in Beijing on September 22, 2018. That Agreement expires today since it went into effect one month later, with the term of two years ad experimentum. As this date drew near, the two parties evaluated various aspects of the Agreement’s application, and through an official exchange of Note Verbali, have agreed to prolong the term for another two years, until October 22, 2022. Therefore, the renewal of the Provisional Agreement seems to be a propitious occasion to explore its objective and motivations.
The primary objective of the Provisional Agreement regarding the appointment of Bishops in China is that of sustaining and promoting the proclamation of the Gospel in that land, restoring the full and visible unity of the Church. In fact, the primary motivations that have guided the Holy See in this process, in dialogue with the Government leaders of that country, are fundamentally of an ecclesiological and pastoral nature. The question regarding the appointment of Bishops is of vital importance for the life of the Church, both at the local as well as at the universal levels. In this regard, Vatican Council II, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, stated that “Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father (see John 20:21); and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion” (Lumen Gentium, 18).
This fundamental teaching regarding the particular role of the Supreme Pontiff within the Episcopal College and in the appointment of Bishops itself, inspired the negotiations and was a point of reference in the drafting of the text of the Agreement. Thus will be ensured, little by little as things go forward, both the unity of faith and the communion among the Bishops, as well as being able to completely be at the service of the Catholic community in China. As of today, for the first time after many decades, all of the Bishops in China are in communion with the Bishop of Rome and, thanks to the implementation of the Agreement, there will be no more illegitimate ordinations.
It should, however, be noted that all the open issues or situations that are still of concern for the Church have not been treated in the Agreement, but solely the issue of episcopal appointments, which is decisive and essential to guarantee the ordinary life of the Church in China, as in all other parts of the world. His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, recently spoke about “The Catholic Church in China, past and present” at a Convention held in Milan this month for the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the PIME missionaries in Henan. On that occasion, he pointed out that various misunderstandings had arisen regarding the Provisional Agreement. Many of them originated because extraneous objectives or unrelated events regarding the life of the Catholic Church in China were attributed to the Agreement and it was even connected to political issues that have nothing to do with the actual Agreement. Recalling that the Agreement exclusively concerns the appointment of Bishops, Cardinal Parolin stated he is aware of the existence of various problems regarding the life of the Catholic Church in China, but also that it is impossible to confront all the issues together.
The stipulation of the Agreement, therefore, constitutes the destination point of a long journey undertaken by the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, but it is also and above all the point of departure for broader and more far-sighted agreements. The Provisional Agreement, the text of which, given its experimental nature, has been consensually kept confidential, is the fruit of an open and constructive dialogue. This dialogic posture, nourished by respect and friendship, is strongly willed and promoted by the Holy Father. Pope Francis is well aware of the wounds the Church’s communion has sustained in the past, and after years of prolonged negotiations that his Predecessors had begun and carried on and indubitably in continuity with their thought, he has re-established full communion with the Chinese Bishops who were ordained without the necessary Pontifical mandate and authorized the signing of the Agreement regarding the appointment of Bishops, which had already been approved by Pope Benedict XVI in draft form.
Cardinal Parolin emphasized that the current dialogue between the Holy See and China has age-old roots and is the continuation of a journey begun a long time ago. The last Pontiffs, in fact, sought that which Pope Benedict XVI described as the overcoming of the heavy “situation of misunderstandings and incomprehension” that serves neither the “interests of…the Chinese authorities nor the Catholic Church in China”. Citing his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, he wrote in 2007: “It is no secret that the Holy See, in the name of the whole Catholic Church and, I believe, for the benefit of the whole human family, hopes for the opening of some form of dialogue with the authorities of the People's Republic of China. Once the misunderstandings of the past have been overcome, such a dialogue would make it possible for us to work together for the good of the Chinese People and for peace in the world” (Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful of the Catholic Church of the People’s Republic of China, no. 4).
Some sectors of international politics have sought to analyze the Holy See’s work primarily along geopolitical lines. Regarding the scope of the Provisional Agreement, instead, the Holy See views it as a profoundly ecclesiological issue, in conformity with two principles stated thus: “Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia” (Saint Ambrose, “Where Peter is, there is the Church”) and “Ubi episcopus, ibi Ecclesia” (Saint Ignatius of Antioch, “Where the Bishop is, there is the Church”). Moreover, there also exists an awareness that the dialogue between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China favors the search for the common good for the benefit of the entire international community.
Specifically with this intention, Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, met with Mr. Wang Yi, State Councilor and Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, on February 14, 2020 in Munich in Bavaria, in the context of the 56th Munich Safety Conference, even though their first personal meeting, although not official, had taken place on the occasion of the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization in New York in 2019. It should be noted that both meetings took place in the context of multilateral diplomatic meetings in favor of global peace and security, thus seeking to pick up on even the slightest signal to foster and sustain the culture of encounter and dialogue.
As was made public by the Holy See, the two diplomats acknowledged the contact between the two parties that had developed positively over time during the meeting that took place in Germany. On that occasion, the desire to pursue the bilateral dialogue at the institutional level fostering the life of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people was reiterated. In addition, the hope was expressed that increased international cooperation would promote civil co-existence and peace in the world and they exchanged considerations regarding intercultural dialogue and human rights. In particular, the importance of the Provisional Agreement regarding the appointment of Bishops, which has now been renewed, was highlighted with the hope that its fruits might grow on the basis of the experience gained over the first two years of it being in force.
Regarding the results achieved so far, on the basis of the regulatory framework established by the Agreement, two Bishops have been appointed (His Excellency Antonio Yao Shun, Diocese of Jining, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and His Excellency Stefano Xu Hongwei, Diocese of Hanzhong, Shaanxi Province), while various other processes for new episcopal appointments are in the process, some at the initial stage, others in more advanced stages. Even though, statistically speaking, these results may not seem to be that great, nevertheless they represent a good start, in the hope that other positive goals might be progressively reached. It cannot be overlooked that in recent months the entire world has been practically paralyzed by the health crisis that has influenced both life and activity in almost all sectors of both public and private life. The same reality has obviously influenced regular contact between the Holy See and the Chinese government as well as the implementation of the Provisional Agreement.
The application of the Agreement, with an effective and progressively more active participation of the Chinese Episcopate is, therefore, of great importance for the life of the Catholic Church in China and, as a consequence, for the universal Church. It is also in that context that the pastoral objective of the Holy See can be situated: to help Chinese Catholics, who have long been internally divided, to manifest signs of reconciliation, collaboration and unity for a renewed and more effective proclamation of the Gospel in China. In a Letter dated September 26, 2018, the Pope had entrusted in a particular way to the Catholic community in China – to the bishops, priests, men and women religious, and lay faithful – the commitment to live love for one another in an authentic spirit, expressing it through concrete actions so as to help overcome misunderstandings, giving witness to their own faith and genuine love. It must be acknowledged that there are still many situations causing serious suffering. The Holy See is very much aware of them, is taking them into account and does not fail to draw them to the attention of the Chinese government so that religious freedom might be truly exercised. There is still a long and difficult road ahead.
Trusting completely in the Lord of history who unfailingly guides His Church and in the maternal intercession of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Sheshan, the Holy See entrusts this delicate and important step to the gracious support and, above all, to the prayers of all Catholics, and hopes that with this contact and dialogue with the People’s Republic of China, which has matured to the point of the signing of the Provisional Agreement on the appointment of Bishops and its renewal today, that they might contribute to the resolution of the matters of common interest that are still open, in particular, those touching the life of the Catholic community in China, as well as the promotion of an international vision of peace, in a moment in which we are experiencing numerous tensions on an international level.
(This is an unofficial working translation of the Italian original.)