Pope Francis' slow march forward to improve relations with Beijing

Pope Francis’ slow march forward to improve relations with Beijing

As China enters the Lunar New Year festivities, Pope Francis recently took advantage of a show of traditional Chinese acrobatics at the Vatican to send a political message: “The acrobats perform perilous exercises and take great risks. I wish you all to always take risks in the path of dialogue, becoming acrobats of peace and fraternity.”

It must be said that when it comes to acrobatics, Vatican diplomacy has had plenty to practice with the Chinese government for seventy years. Latest episode of this high acrobat: the ordination of three bishops. Certainly, we are far from the dark years of the Maoist period when terrible anti-religious persecutions fell on Christian communities. But the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics (APCC) is clearly today the official showcase of a Catholicism controlled by the Communist Party to the despair of many faithful who secretly refuse this political allegiance.

Bishop Yuesheng was ordained in the center of the country on January 25. Mgr Venjun, on January 29, in the east, in Weifang, in a diocese created for the occasion. A first since the communists took power in 1949, a sign that the old apostolic prefectures of the first missionary times are gradually being transformed into dioceses recognized by the authorities. Bishop Yishun was ordained in the province of Fujian on January 31. Control of the Party remains intact because the prelates who presided over the celebrations are eminent members of the official Church: Mgr Joseph Bin is the current president of the Chinese Bishops’ Conference; Bishop John Xingyao, a former president of the APCC; Mgr Joseph Shan, its current president.

This official character should not hide perhaps more favorable developments. Bishop Shan came to meet the newly appointed Cardinal Stephen Chow, Bishop of Hong Kong. An appointment assumed by the Pope who, by choosing this skillful academic trained in the United States, provincial of the Jesuits in China since 2018, continues his strategy of the outstretched hand. While awaiting the possible beatification of Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary founder of Chinese Catholicism in the 16th century.

Vietnam, a model

Thus, the agreement signed in September 2018 between Rome and Beijing, the terms of which remain secret, seems to be slowly fluidifying relations. But when will a permanent liaison office of the Holy See be opened in China, as Cardinal Pietro Parolin wishes? This would “promote not only dialogue with civil authorities, but also full reconciliation within the Chinese Church.” The Vietnamese communist “little brother” sets the example: fifty years after the expulsion of the last delegate, Mgr Zalewski was welcomed on February 6 in Hanoi, as resident pontifical representative. The fruit of an agreement signed in broad daylight, in July 2023, between Pope Francis and President Vo Van Thuong, who went to the Vatican for the occasion.

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