Pope Benedict XVI recently called upon the entire Church to pray for the Church in China, designating May 24 as a special Day of Prayer for that purpose. In light of that, we make the Church in China our topic this week.

A long-standing tension
I thought it would be helpful if I gave a brief summary of some of the basic issues involved in this question.

Many of us of a certain age will recall that, as children, we were made very aware of the trials of the Catholic Church in China. After the Communist victory in China, which took place shortly after World War II, the Catholic Church was singled out for particular persecution. Bishops, priests, religious sisters and many lay faithful endured unspeakable torture, imprisonment and death because of their faithful profession of the Catholic faith.

The Communist authorities in most countries in which they had been victorious based their persecution of the Church, and their desire to eradicate it along with its leaders and faithful, on two basic points: the first is that Communist states are intrinsically atheistic, and in their more severe forms, seek to exclude God completely from their societies; secondly, they accuse the Catholic Church of being a “foreign institution” which interferes with the legitimate patriotism of its people.

A very basic problem, at the root of much of the tension between the Holy See and the Chinese government during the last 30 years or so, involves the appointment of bishops. There exists a somewhat complicated situation in which there are, in effect, different classifications of Catholic bishops in China, including those consecrated as bishops with the “mandate” or appointment of the Holy See; those consecrated secretly due to the atmosphere of persecution; and those who belong to a national or official Catholic Church, somewhat sanctioned by the Chinese government. Generally, all of these are valid bishops, who administer valid sacraments, because they received their Orders from validly consecrated bishops.

Letter of Pope Benedict to the Catholics of China
In order to show his fatherly care for the Catholics of China, and in a desire to encourage and praise them in their difficulties, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a Letter to the Catholics of China in 2007. By examining it briefly, this Letter will help us to understand the situation in China better and inspire us both to admire and pray for our Catholic brothers and sisters in that part of the world.

In looking at the great field of China as a challenge for the new evangelization, Pope Benedict references Pope John Paul II, who stated that “the new evangelization demands the proclamation of the Gospel to modern man, with a keen awareness that, just as during the first Christian millennium the Cross was planted in Europe and during the second in the American continent and in Africa, so during the third millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in the vast and vibrant Asian continent” (Letter to the Catholics of China, 3).

In order to reaffirm the fact that the Catholic Church has no intention of replacing or defying any legitimate form of government in the various countries of the world, the Pope recalls the teaching of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council in regard to the Church’s relationship with various States and forms of government: “The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified with any political community nor is she tied to any political system. She is at once the sign and the safeguard of the transcendental dimension of the human person” (Gaudium et Spes, 76).

This, of course, does not mean that the Church will not pursue, in her own sphere, works that lead to charity, justice and a just and equitable society. It does mean, however, that the Church must be granted freedom, without interference from the State, to pursue her own mission.

The Pope summarizes these principles by referencing the current relationship between the Church and the Chinese government, stating: “In the light of these unrenounceable principles, the solution to existing problems cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities; at the same time, though, compliance with those authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church. The civil authorities are well aware that the Church in her teaching invites the faithful to be good citizens, respectful and active contributors to the common good in their country, but it is likewise clear that she asks the State to guarantee to those same Catholic citizens the full exercise of their faith, with respect to authentic religious freedom” (Letter, 4).

The Pope reminds the faithful of China and, by extension, the Chinese government, that the constitution of the Church as established by Christ Himself, has as an essential quality the union of bishops with the successor of St. Peter. “In every particular Church, in order that she may be fully part of the Church, there must be present the supreme authority of the Church, that is to say, the Episcopal College together with its Head, the Roman Pontiff, and never apart from him.”

The Pope goes on to emphasize that there are no foreigners in the Church, “but all are citizens of the same People, members of the same mystical Body of Christ. The bond of sacramental communion is the Eucharist, guaranteed by the ministry of Bishops and priests” (Letter, 5).

Zealous and courageous in spreading and maintaining the Faith
While we cannot examine every single aspect of the Pope’s Letter, it is appropriate here to pay tribute to the many zealous missionaries and the courageous faithful who have preached and suffered for the Gospel in China.

A famous figure in the history of evangelization in that country is the Italian Jesuit priest, Father Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). In fact, there are a number of celebrations taking place in China in connection with the 400th anniversary of his death this year. Father Ricci is admired by the Chinese for his love of their culture and his understanding of its profound value. He helped to bring Chinese philosophical teachings to the rest of the world by translating the classics of Confucianism into Latin and he introduced Western texts on mathematics, hydraulics, astronomy, trigonometry and geography to the Chinese by translating them into Chinese. In all this, he was assisted by Paul Xu Guanggi (1562-1633), who was an Imperial Chinese official and who, impressed with Father Ricci’s holiness and knowledge, eventually became a Christian himself.

We cannot forget the many zealous missionaries, including many Americans from Maryknoll, a missionary congregation founded in our own country, who zealously and courageously spread the Gospel in China. We recall with admiration, as the Holy Father did, the many Chinese and foreign missionaries who have suffered, and even died, for the Faith in that country.

Closer to home, we look with admiration on the many Chinese Catholics who live within our own Archdiocese. In fact, in 1941, my predecessor, Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, founded a parish to care for the Chinese arriving in Philadelphia in large numbers. This parish, Holy Redeemer, has been and continues to be a center of both Catholic evangelization and Chinese culture in our own city. Masses are offered there each Sunday in Cantonese and Mandarin as well as in English.

The presence of so many Catholics in our Archdiocese from other parts of Asia is also a great tribute to the universality of the Gospel, the zeal of missionaries and the motherly care of the Church for all her faithful members.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute, in a special way, to the Faith of our Catholics in the Archdiocese from China and many other parts of Asia, and I thank those who work so zealously in the many apostolates and parishes that care for the spiritual needs of these members of our local Church.

We can conclude by joining with our Holy Father, who wrote a beautiful prayer to Our Lady Help of Christians, venerated in a special way at her shrine in Sheshan, outside the city of Shanghai. The prayer reads, in part: “Our Lady of Sheshan, sustain all those in China, who, amid their daily trials, continue to believe, to hope, to love. May they never be afraid to speak of Jesus to the world, and of the world to Jesus. In the statue overlooking the shrine, you lift your Son on high, offering Him to the world with open arms in a gesture of love. Help Catholics always to be credible witnesses to this love, ever clinging to the Rock of Peter on which the Church is built. Mother of China and Asia, pray for us, now, and for ever. Amen!”

3 June 2010