Benedict reaches out to China

While acknowledging their sufferings under communist rule, Pope Benedict in his long awaited letter to Catholics in China has revoked a series of directives that allowed Rome-affiliated bishops and priests to operate secretly, saying they are no longer necessary.

The New York Times reports that Pope Benedict concluded that it was time to forgive past wrongdoings and for the underground and state-sponsored Catholic churches in China to reconcile.

Openly hoping for a renewal of relations between China and the Vatican, which were suspended in the 1950s, Pope Benedict reassured Beijing that the Vatican offered no political challenge to its authority, while urging the state-sponsored Catholic church to acknowledge the Vatican's control on religious matters.

"The misunderstanding ... weighs heavily, serving neither the Chinese authorities nor the Catholic Church in China," the letter said.

It was the pope's long-awaited first official statement on China's estimated 12 million Catholics, the majority of whom worship in underground churches to avoid having to register with the government.

Dated 27 May, the 28-page letter was issued in multiple languages, including Chinese.

The pope praised China for "the splendor of its ancient civilisation" and noted with approval that it had greater religious freedoms and decisive movement toward socio-economic progress. He underlined that the Catholic Church "does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State."

Gerolamo Fazzini, editor of Mondo e Missione, a magazine for the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, said: "This is a step forward. ... It says the church and authorities can be allied in dialogue. That you can be good Chinese citizens and Catholics at the same time."

But the pope's message to the Patriotic Church Association, the government body that oversees the state churches, was that no Catholic church should operate independently of the Vatican, and he said Catholics should seek to worship with priests who accepted the guidance of Rome. He criticised "grave limitations" in religious practice. Still, he said, sacraments administered in state churches were holy.

Pope Benedict officially revoked a set of 1988 directives, promulgated by the previous pope, John Paul II, that gave bishops and priests in China special powers that allowed them to operate without the mandate of the Vatican. The directives were intended to allow underground clerics to operate secretly and independently to avoid persecution and danger.

The letter included a reaffirmation of the Vatican's right to appoint bishops, a point of deep contention between Rome and the Chinese Patriotic Church. In 2006, the Chinese church enraged the Vatican by appointing three new bishops without consultation.

China reaction calm

Meanwhile, Catholic News Service reports that Chinese government officials told about 80 Chinese Catholic bishops, priests and lay Catholics called to a late-June meeting to receive the letter "with calmness."

More than 30 Catholic bishops from 15 or so provinces attended the 28-29 June meeting in Beijing, UCA News said.

AsiaNews quoted the Chinese government bishop of Fengxiang, who is not a member of the Patriotic Association, as saying that the papal letter makes the right call for unity and that he is hopeful that Beijing might try a sincere dialogue with the Holy See, a key element to China's development.

However, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang said that the Vatican should take actions, instead of creating barriers, if it wants to improve ties with China, Xinhua says

Qin made the remarks when answering a question about Pope Benedict XVI's open letter to Chinese Catholics.

"China's stance on improving relations with the Vatican is consistent. Namely, Vatican should sever the so-called diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognise the People's Republic of China is the sole government representing China," said Qin.

Hong Kong's Cardinal Zen joins protest

In Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Zi-kiun, said that "the voice of our bishops and priests in China is often prevented from reaching our leaders; now that the letter of the pope is in the hands of our leaders, our bishops and priests can thus refer to it directly as a common starting point for dialogue."

Yesterday, Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun also chose for the first time to participate in a march and prayer meeting for democracy.

He even helped carry a large protest flag in the front row of marchers, AsiaNews says.

Hong Kong marks anniversary of handover (International Herald Tribune, 1/7/07)
Cardinal Zen: "Pope's letter to the Chinese Church represents love for truth and his children" (AsiaNews, 1/7/07)
Pope's letter is key to China's development, says Mgr Li Jingfeng (AsiaNews, 1/7/07)
Pope Benedict's letter to China seen as historic (Houston Chronicle, 30/6/07)
China urges Vatican to take actions to improve ties (Xinhua, 30/6/07)
Vatican confronts China (Sydney Morning Herald, 1/7/07)
Pope Makes Plea to China's Catholics (New York Times, 30/6/07)
Pope says China "suffocates" faith, urges dialogue (Reuters, 30/6/07)
Pope urges Catholics in China to unify, makes overtures to official church (International Herald Tribune, 30/6/07)
Pope aims to normalise China ties (BBC News, 30/6/07)
China tells Catholics to receive papal letter 'with calmness' (Catholic News, 29/6/07)
Vatican to release pope's letter to Catholic Chinese on Saturday (International Herald Tribune, 29/6/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Pope Benedict's Letter to Catholics in China (Vatican, 30/6/07)
Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (Wikipedia)
Catholic Church in China (Catholic Hierarchy)

Monasteries pray for Pope's China letter (CathNews, 26/6/07)
No China ties unless Vatican appoints bishops (CathNews, 22/5/07)
China bishop still missing (CathNews, 17/4/07)
"Christian explosion" among Chinese intellectuals, expert finds (CathNews, 23/3/07)
No rest for Zen, Pope decides (CathNews, 22/3/07)
Bibles for Beijing Olympics (CathNews, 12/3/07)

Pope's letter: for truth and love of the Church and China (AsiaNews, 30/6/07)

2 Jul 2007