Pope Francis pursues a thaw in relations with mainland China

Facing mixed signals coming from the government on the Chinese mainland regarding dealings with the Vatican, Pope Francis hopes to warm their relationship and someday establish a diplomatic representative in Beijing.
A thaw has seemingly flourished between the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See, following the nearly simultaneous accessions of Pope Francis and Xi Jinping, president of China – March 13 and March 14, 2013, respectively.
Free from any bond with past policies, Xi has re-opened the frozen channel with the Vatican by responding in written form to the well-wishes Pope Francis sent him after his election – a first for a Chinese president.
After that, for the first time China allowed a papal flight to utilize Chinese air space, for Bergoglio’s visit to South Korea last month.
Not by chance, one the eve of the papal voyage, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, underscored in an interview that “the Church in China is lively and active,” and that “the Holy See is open to dialogue and only requests to be able to exercise its ministry with freedom.”
Cardinal Parolin’s request that the Church be able to freely exercise its ministry was an allusion to the illicit ordinations that take place in the Chinese People’s Republic.
The Church in China is often described as divided, between an ‘official’ Church linked to the government, the Patriotic Association, and an ‘underground’ Church, persecuted and whose episcopal appointments are frequently not acknowledged by Chinese authorities.
In his in-flight press conference held on the return from Korea, Pope Francis mentioned his desire to visit China, affirming he would go there “even tomorrow morning,” and mentioning Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to Catholics in China, calling it a “milestone.”
The pope’s mention was not by chance.
The letter showed Benedict’s affection for Catholics in China, and opened a way to dialogue with the authorities, while also maintaining resolve on the principles of the Church’s autonomy.
After the publication of the letter, there had been signs of thaw between the Holy See and Beijing, though relations have fluctuated.
Between 2007 and 2008, the Archbishop of Beijing had been appointed with the twofold approval of Rome and Beijing. Then, relations cooled again in 2008 and 2009.
From 2009 to 2011, a series of new episcopal appointments with the twofold approval followed Benedict’s invitation to then-Chinese president Hu Jintao for a meeting to be held in the Vatican in 2009.
The meeting with the pope could not be held, but the invitation was appreciated.
From 2011 on, there was an interchange of appointments with twofold approval, and appointments by the Chinese government, and the freeze in relationship culminated last year with a case in the Shanghai diocese, one of the biggest and most important in China.
Father Taddeo Ma Daqin, a member of the Patriotic Association and at the same time faithful to Rome, had been appointed as auxiliary bishop.
On the day of his episcopal consecration, July 7, 2013, Bishop Ma Daqin announced he did not want any longer be part of the Patriotic Association, since this would be in contrast with his episcopal ministry, thus following the guidelines provided in Benedict’s 2007 letter.
Bishop Ma Daqin was then confined by Chinese authorities to the shrine of Sheshan, and he was forbidden to celebrate the funeral of the late bishop of Shanghai.
Pope Francis hopes to overcome this stalemate, with a series of steps that was initiated even before the big trouble in Shanghai.
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, wrote an article in 2012 marking the fifth anniversary of Benedict’s letter which looked for a response to the issues the Pope had raised.
The cardinal clarified points of departure between the two camps, and emphasized the need for a constructive dialogue.
Pope Francis’ policy is likely to follow two paths, both diplomatic and pastoral.
The diplomatic model would be that of Vietnam, which has lacked a delegate from the Holy See since 1975, when the communist North overran South Vietnam.
But subsequent talks with Vietnam led to the establishment of a non-residential pontifical representatives, and now the Holy See is hoping for a permanent representative, in order to have full diplomatic ties in the future.
A hurdle for Chinese, however, authorities is that the Holy See has a pontifical representative in the Republic of China, known as Taiwan.
His pastoral strategy could focus on the cause of beautification of Father Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit who evangelized China. The cause advanced to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints last year.
Pope Francis’ focus on martyrs and saints is meant to underscore that the church does not approach Asia as a conqueror, but as a witness to Christ.

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