Friday, July 15, 2011

In China, "It's a War"

For all the local difficulties that could easily keep the Vatican brass up at night, by far, one situation likely trumps all the rest these days.

That distinction belongs to the state of the beleaguered church in China, where recent months have witnessed a spike of tensions that've served to further roil an already tenuous balance between the state-sanctioned "official" church and the "underground" faithful who clandestinely maintain communion with Rome.

Even if secularism and challenges to religious expression in society rate as key concerns on the ecclesial radar in Europe and the Americas, the Chinese drama that's flared in fits and starts over recent years rises to a threat level practically all its own. Because, in a nutshell, while many Westerners have come to be alarmed over external hurdles perceived to limit the presence of faith and the rights of believers in the public square, in the world's largest country, the church is unable to merely exist according to its own determination, its internal governance carried out under the close supervision of the state -- and, often, contingent upon the latter's approval.

Of the estimated 12 million Chinese Catholics, two-thirds are said to be affiliated with the clandestine church. Still, after a period of quiet interaction and public strides toward rapproachment in the wake of the Pope's 2007 Letter to the Chinese church, the temporary thaw between Beijing and Rome blew over last Fall as the government-sponsored Patriotic Catholic Association -- the Mainland's sole legal, public form of Catholicism -- signaled a return to its pre-detente practice of ordaining bishops on its own authority, lacking papal mandate (nor, for that matter, the discreet consultation that briefly had the Holy See signing off on the candidates presented by the state church).

Over the months since December's national PA meeting in Beijing which set the stage for the new appointments -- a gathering for which several clergy with Roman sympathies were reportedly rounded up by the civil authorities and forced to attend -- matters have only worsened. Following a first illicit ordination in November, a second rite was provocatively scheduled on last months' feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and today brought another of what could be as many as ten Patriotic-church elevations over the course of the coming months.

Notably, at least some of the clerics ordained by the PA were elected by the clergy and lay representatives of the dioceses in question. In at least two reported instances, though, the prelate chosen was the lone candidate on the ballot.

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Much as it's been somewhat muted in mainstream news, the Vatican has taken to responding to the developments with a rare ferocity, publicly lobbing warnings of excommunication at the ordaining bishops and the candidates presented to them -- provided, however, that the participants were not made to perform the rites under force. And given said context, recent days have again brought reports that prelates in communion with Rome were either kidnapped or otherwise pressed to ensure their presence at the ordinations.

Shortly after the Holy See's "law office" released a lengthy statement outlining the penalties for illicitly-ordained bishops and "call[ing] for the bishops involved" in the liturgies "to recover their authority through signs of communion and penance," the Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi spoke of the Pope's "pain and concern" over the deteriorating situation following today's move. And elsewhere, the church's veteran lead voice on Chinese matters, Hong Kong's retired Cardinal Joseph Zen SDB, described the current state of affairs as "war" at a New York press conference held in response to the ceremony.

Earlier this week, Zen took out a half-page ad in a Hong Kong newspaper calling on Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to halt the Mass. On his retirement in 2009, the 79 year-old cardinal was succeeded by Bishop John Tong, a considerably more moderate voice on Mainland matters. (The appointment made amid the high season of Sino-Vatican calm, Tong's promotion was widely considered a Roman concession to Beijing.)

In the background, meanwhile, the downturn of relations has made for a significant first test for the Holy See's newA-team on China policy: Archbishop Savio Hon (above), a Hong Kong native and now #2 of the church's missionary office, who became the first-ever Chinese named a senior Vatican official late last year, and his freshly arrived boss at the Propaganda Fide, Archbishop Fernando Filoni, a veteran of the Hong Kong-based "study mission" that, during the 1990s, served as the Vatican's quiet diplomatic back-door to the Mainland.

Between them, the two bring an unprecedented depth of contacts and on-ground experience to Rome's dealings with the Forbidden City. Even amid the almost historically grave circumstances, expectations remain high that they'll be able to craft some sort of resolution, albeit with a strong awareness that no lack of time or delicacy is certain to be needed for the task.

In the meanwhile, though, signs of lasting progress that were felt to be increasingly possible not all that long ago -- high among them, a move of the Holy See's Chinese nunciature from Taipei to Beijing -- are now indefinitely on ice.

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Sure, this isn't the sexiest of stories -- and one that, to some, might seem too far removed to matter terribly much in our own orbits.

In a church that's interconnected by definition, though, nothing -- or, for that matter, no one -- is ever "too far" to not be close to each of us... and in a world that's ever more catching up with a concept of communion, a shifting balance of power promises to have global implications over the decades to come, and not just on the political or economic fronts.

Along those lines, a strong commentary was published in the wake of today's latest ordination by the Rome-based editor of the comprehensive, influential AsiaNews website, the Italian missionary Fr Bernardo Cervellera, that Benedict's "pain and concern" shouldn't just be his alone, and calls out to be felt more, both in the church and the wider world:
The Pope’s "pain and concern," is due to the fact that through these moves to dominate the Church in China, the patient work of mending bonds between the underground and official Church that John Paul II and Benedict XVI both attempted, is unravelling. A divided church is slow to evangelization and moreover, it fails to guarantee its right and space for religious freedom from the Chinese Communist Party which, in theory, the same Chinese constitution allows....

The "pain and concern" is also for the lives of [its] bishops. Because of the Shantou ordination, Mgr. Paul Pei Junmin of Liaoning has not been able to leave his diocese, helped by all the priests who were with him to praying continuously for days, to prevent their bishop being kidnapped. Another pastor, Mgr. Cai Bingrui Xiamen managed to hide. But he is now wanted by the government authorities. Last December, another bishop, Mgr. Li Lianghui of Cangzhou (Hebei), went into hiding in order not to have to participate in another gesture against the Pope (the Assembly of Representatives of Chinese Catholics). The police hunted for him for days like a "criminal" and after finding him, forced him to three months of isolation and brainwashing to convince him of the Party’s "good intentions" towards the Church. It is possible that Mgr. Pei and Mgr. Cai have been subjected to isolation and political sessions, to tear them from their ministry and destroy them from a psychological point of view.

With all of this, we must say that those sharing the Pope’s "pain and concern," are all too few.

And first of all, they are too few in the Church. The World Day of Prayer for the Church in China, commissioned and implored by Pope Benedict XVI with the appeal of last May 18, found few dioceses ready to pray for the Church in China, its persecuted and "opportunistic" bishops.

Not to mention civil society. By now, the Yangtze River’s white dolphin, which risks extinction due to pollution in China, provokes a greater outcry than the extinction of freedom in a country that is destined to rule the world, but which uses heavy handed methods without batting an eyelid.

A rosé of presidents further encourages this attitude (including the Italian president) as well as Secretaries of State, who visiting China never fail to eulogise the "positive path" taken by Beijing on human rights, while – beyond bishops and priests - thousands of activists, petitioners, artists and writers are imprisoned and forcibly silenced....

It is not just a case of simple greed, of interest in the Chinese market, it is a matter of short-sightedness in not seeing that attacks on religious freedom, sooner or later, become attacks on all freedoms.
Indeed, even as many in the West might feel this "attack" on one front, across the globe, it's being experienced to a degree most of us couldn't fathom.

Luckily, though, it's not as if this church has to resign itself to look on powerlessly: not just in Rome, after all, the Catholic world is blessed with resources, networks, numbers, conviction -- above all, a voice -- to seek the good and to speak to the many wounds of this hurting world... but especially when they involve our own who're being made to suffer precisely because they're one with the rest of us.

That's not to say the world will change overnight, but if things are ever going to improve, it's gotta start somewhere, right? Ergo, even barring the bigger stuff, as a brutal story plays out for our own a world away, but not far at all from any of us, may we know the grace to simply be mindful of it, to use what we have to aid those who don't... and, no question, to remember how blessed we are in our own freedom, and to exercise it to its most life-giving result.

PHOTOS: Reuters(2,3)