China’s official Catholics cautiously mourn pope’s passing

Though tolerating church, Beijing holds reins on clergy, flock

Shanghai — As the world mourns the passing of Pope John Paul II, China’s Catholics are mourning too, but cautiously.

At St. Peter’s Church in Shanghai on Sunday, a portrait of the pope looked down from the altar as hundreds of worshipers packed the pews and aisles for an English-language Mass, and the Rev. Joseph Lu said he hoped the world would follow the pope’s example as a peacemaker.

But Lu chose his words carefully. Even as he lavished praise on the pope, he cautioned, “We do not practice his teachings.”

This week, as the world awaits the selection of a successor to John Paul, millions of Chinese Catholics are waiting anxiously to find out whether the new pope will usher in a new era in the Vatican’s uneasy relations with Beijing.

The Chinese government recognizes the pope but has rejected the Vatican’s jurisdiction over its flock in China and its authority to appoint bishops for more than half a century.

The Vatican estimates that China is home to 12 million Catholics, only a third of whom worship in the country’s legal, government-sanctioned churches. So millions of Catholics across the nation who are not part of the official “patriotic church” remembered the pope and expressed fealty to the Vatican last weekend in private homes and makeshift, illegal churches.

After the pope died, hopes were raised when Beijing announced that it wished to establish a relationship with the Vatican under his successor, but those hopes were quickly tempered by two major caveats.

China is “willing to improve its relations with (the) Vatican on condition that the Vatican terminate diplomatic relations with Taiwan and promise that it will not interfere in China’s affairs, including any intervention under the pretext of religious affairs,” China’s official Xinhua news agency said.

That is the same stance China has maintained for decades. Taiwan split with China in 1949, and China refuses to have relations with any government or authority that recognizes Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen told reporters late Monday that the Vatican wants to cut formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognize mainland China.

“The Vatican is planning to give up Taiwan. There’s no other way,” said Zen, who heads the only Roman Catholic Church on Chinese soil. “Even though this is a difficult thing to do, it has decided to go ahead.”

An official at Taiwan’s Embassy to the Vatican, Kao Shy-ya, denied the report Tuesday, and calls to the Vatican were not returned.

Pope John Paul II reportedly was willing to move on the Taiwan issue but objected to the Chinese government’s charge of “interference” in church affairs. Beijing wants to retain final approval over who is ordained into church leadership in China, a privilege normally reserved by the Vatican.

Because of the political dispute, China is one of the few countries the pope never visited.

The Chinese government’s policy on religious tolerance has relaxed in recent years, yet Catholics say they continue to be persecuted, and leaders of the underground church are regularly harassed and arrested. On Saturday, the day the pope died, the Vatican issued a statement announcing that Chinese authorities had carried out a new series of arrests of officials from the shadow church.

Joseph Ma, a Shanghai native who now lives in Hillsborough (San Mateo County), has witnessed the division in the Catholic Church in China for decades.

Ma, a devout Catholic and son of a Jesuit-trained lawyer, fled Shanghai with his family when he was only 9 as the communists came to power under Mao Zedong. He recalls the night in 1949 when his mother prayed to a statue of the Virgin Mary, asking for guidance on whether they should leave.

The next morning, their bishop called Ma’s father aside and urged him to leave the country. The Ma family made their way to Taiwan, then gradually to the United States.

Bishop Kung Pin-Mei, who later was named Cardinal Kung, was arrested and imprisoned for 33 years. Thousands of Catholics, abandoned by missionaries who converted parts of China and then left as the communists advanced, were imprisoned and subjected to other acts of retribution.

Ma says he thinks that the current status of Chinese Catholics “is better in urban, affluent areas,” but that rural residents remain at the mercy of an unclear mandate. He points to the continuing arrests of church leaders, more than 20 of whom are now believed to be in prison.

“It varies from region to region and city to city,” said Ma. “I don’t see any uniform policy.”

However, Richard Madsen, a UC San Diego sociology professor who is the author of “China’s Catholics,” says rural areas are strongholds of the faith. In some ways, he says, the clandestine church on the mainland is more vibrant and healthier than its open counterpart in Taiwan.

“The struggle against a communist government, in combination with the prominently conservative, rural-oriented values of the church in China, give it a lot of vigor — and these were values that were close to Pope John Paul’s heart,” said Madsen.

Madsen points out that the pope came to the world stage at a crucial time in Chinese history, two years after the death of Mao Zedong and just as his successor, Deng Xiaoping, assumed power in 1978. As Deng plunged into economic reforms and global openness, the “people’s pope” began his world travels, stirring change in communist-controlled European nations and carving out a legacy.

“In the reform era, the possibility of a relationship opened up,” said Madsen. “One could imagine scenarios in which the relations would have turned out better than they are now. But they are certainly better than they were during the Maoist era.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Apr. 6, 2005
Kathleen E. McLaughlin, Chronicle Foreign Service

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday April 6, 2005.
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