China’s papal blessing

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Sitting in a church with so many people from across the world, the congregation was truly catholic. Yet as my now completed sojourn in China’s capital finally started, exactly three years ago, I was left with a dilemma in faith.

At home in South Africa, I had read about the so-called persecution of Catholics in China and how the underground church had suffered grievously at the hands of the Communist government. A compromise, I thought, would be to attend Holy Mass but, in solidarity with the underground church, I would not participate in the sacraments. It was a foolish compromise; I would later come to realize.

Holy Mass was celebrated for ex-pats, in the main, by priests from Ireland, Italy and the Philippines and on occasion, it would be a Chinese priest. To all intents and purposes, the sacraments were therefore being celebrated both validly and licitly. Nonetheless what helped, even more, was reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Letter to the Church in China.

Pope Benedict was most explicit on the situation of the Catholic Church in China when he wrote: “In the Catholic Church which is in China, the universal Church is present, the Church of Christ, which in the Creed we acknowledge being the one, holy, catholic and apostolic, that is to say, the universal community of the Lord’s disciples.” (Pope Benedict’s emphasis).

In the past few weeks much international news has been made of the United States’ Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, visit the Vatican and his earlier condemnation of the 2018 deal struck between the  Holy See and the People’s Republic of China.

A few days before his visit to the Vatican and coming in the days of the renewal of the Vatican-China deal, Pompeo suggested that “the Vatican endangers its moral authority should it renew the deal.” Pope Francis, one the greatest promoters of the deal, subsequently refused to meet with Pompeo.

Instead, Pietro Parolin, Cardinal Secretary of State of the Holy See, simply indicated that “with China, [their] current interest is to normalize the life of the church as much as possible, to ensure that the church can live a normal life, which for the Catholic Church means having relations with the Holy See and the pope.” The deal primarily entails the process of the appointment of bishops.

A number of Catholics, however, have also been critical of the deal, not least of all the former bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun. Yet Pope Benedict in his letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007, quoting his predecessor, Saint Pope John Paul II, wrote that he was hoping “that concrete forms of communication and cooperation between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China may soon be established.”

“Friendship”, continued Pope Benedict, “is nourished by contacts, by a sharing in the joy and sadness of different situations, by solidarity and mutual assistance.” Benedict was quoting his predecessor when the latter addressed the International Convention “Matteo Ricci: For dialogue between China and the West” in 2001. The Holy See and the PRC do not enjoy diplomatic relations and one could argue that these relations, for China, remains one of the last steps in its opening reforms which began in the late 1970s.

But China has also been correctly cautious in its handling of religious communities. While it openly pursues the normalisation of relations with the Catholic Church, it is weary of Christian communities that spread political and economic messages of regime change. There should be no doubt that Christianity was used as a tool by colonialism and will continue to be used as a tool to promote political and social unrest.

For a while, there has been talk of evidence of the CIA influencing and funding some Christian sects in China. It is for this reason that even Pope Benedict was explicit in his letter that “the Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State…”

In the end, attending Holy Mass with ex-pats and Chinese was a moment of grace. An opportunity to pray for the Church in China and the universal Church. However, the episode also showed how easily we have been indoctrinated by the west against China. Just as the west funds Christian sects in China, to push for regime change, so too we often fall victim to their propaganda machines here at home.

While Pompeo may have visited the Vatican, the meeting between him and Cardinal Parolin illustrated only one thing: China’s broader acceptance into the international community while the US continues fast on the road of international isolation.

Wesley Seale has a PhD in Chinese foreign policy and is a practising Catholic.