New book describes Pope's dream of China visit

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 February, 2005, 12:00am

Pope John Paul has expressed his affection for mainland Catholics on 51 occasions and even sent a long letter to Deng Xiaoping in 1983 which went unanswered, according to a recent book by a papal troubleshooter.

The pope, who has never visited China, cherishes such a trip as his ardent 'apostolic dream', according to Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who says the pope turned down an invitation to visit Taiwan to avoid jeopardising the prospect of a rapprochement with the mainland.

Cardinal Etchegaray's revelations appear in Vers les Chretiens en Chine (Towards the Christians in China) published in Paris. The Frenchman became the first cardinal to visit the People's Republic, in 1980, and the book describes his four visits over the course of 23 years and his hopes for dialogue between Rome and Beijing.

Born in 1922, Cardinal Etchegaray has undertaken many sensitive diplomatic missions on behalf of the pontiff, including a high-profile mission in February 2003 to Baghdad to meet then president Saddam Hussein on the eve of the US-led war on Iraq.

In his first ice-breaking visit to the mainland in 1980, the Basque cardinal was received by Ulanfu , a vice-chairman of the National People's Congress.

Cardinal Etchegaray told his host the pope would visit the mainland but for the deplorable state of the underground church, whose members were loyal Chinese citizens but deprived of the minimal freedom to practise their religion.

Ulanfu agreed that a chasm divided Rome and Beijing, but he urged increasing contact so that each side could make more efforts to reach out to the other.

The thin volume is packed with anecdotes. One recounts how Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference members questioned him about the amount of autonomy the cardinal, as archbishop of Marseille, could exercise without submitting himself to the 'imperialism' of Rome. The transcript of the exchange, the cardinal learned later, was circulated widely.

In his meeting with the State Bureau of Religious Affairs, the cardinal expressed the Vatican's reservations about the 'illicit' consecration of bishops, saying it would make a resumption of contact with Beijing very difficult. The Chinese authorities reject the pope's right to appoint bishops, and insist on naming their own prelates.

Twenty years later, in September 2000, Cardinal Etchegaray was on another sensitive mission to Beijing in a frosty atmosphere.

In March of that year, the Vatican had announced the canonisation of 120 martyrs, most of whom died during the Boxer Uprising in 1900. Chinese history regarded the Boxer movement as an outburst of nationalistic fervour and its victims, for the most part, as traitors and collaborators.

As a diplomat, the cardinal attributed the ill feeling to a lack of contact and dialogue. He explained the pope had only wanted to recognise those Chinese who had sacrificed their lives for the faith as martyrs.

The following year, the pope acknowledged that the Catholic Church had made mistakes and appealed for a normalisation of relations. According to the cardinal, the pope sensed the time was ripe for surmounting the two obstacles to the normalisation of relations, namely the question of Taiwan and the appointment of bishops.

However, with relations still at an impasse despite the olive branch extended by the pope, the cardinal ends his book with a prayer for better times ahead.