China-Vatican relations

Pope Francis urges Chinese Catholics to overcome divisions for ‘new chapter of cooperation’

In conciliatory message to faithful, Pope focuses on moving past differences

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 September, 2018, 7:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 September, 2018, 11:03pm

Pope Francis urged Chinese Catholics on Wednesday to trust him and make concrete gestures of reconciliation following a landmark deal over bishop appointments that is aimed at ending decades of estrangement between the Vatican and Beijing.

In a letter to the Chinese faithful, Francis also called for greater dialogue between local priests and government authorities to ensure that ordinary church activities could be carried out, while encouraging the opening of “a new chapter” in official bilateral cooperation.

He said the aim was to “initiate an unprecedented process that we hope will help to heal the wounds of the past, restore full communion among all Chinese Catholics, and lead to a phase of greater fraternal cooperation”.

The letter follows the deal signed on Saturday governing the naming of bishops in China, an issue that has vexed relations for decades. The agreement regularises the status of seven bishops who had been appointed by Beijing over the years without papal consent, and sets out a process of dialogue to name new ones. Francis said he, not Beijing, would ultimately name new bishops.

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While the deal addressed a crucial aspect of church governance in China, it did not address more pastoral issues of unifying split communities, which the letter published on Wednesday aims to do.

“The Catholic community in China is called to be united, so as to overcome the divisions of the past that have caused, and continue to cause great suffering in the hearts of many pastors and faithful,” Francis wrote. “All Christians, none excluded, must now offer gestures of reconciliation and communion.”

China’s estimated 12 million Catholics are split between those belonging to the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which is outside the Pope’s authority, and an underground church loyal to the Pope. Underground priests and parishioners are frequently detained and harassed.

Francis – and before him Pope Benedict XVI and St John Paul II – had tried to unite the two communities, including a letter Benedict penned to the Chinese faithful in 2007. Years of negotiations kicked into high gear over a year ago, culminating in the deal signed Saturday.

Unlike Benedict’s 2007 letter, which labelled the patriotic association “incompatible” with Catholic doctrine and took a hard line in asserting the exclusive right of the Pope to name bishops, Francis’ tone was far more conciliatory and focused on moving past previous differences. He did not even name the patriotic association or insist on his right to name bishops.

But has said that after a period of dialogue he would ultimately name new leaders of the church.

The letter provided some detail of the process involved, which includes ordinary priests and lay faithful taking part in the nomination process. Lay participation is unknown in the West, where such nominations are put to the Vatican for consideration by the local hierarchy and the local Vatican ambassador.

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Francis urged the Chinese faithful “to join in seeking good candidates” who are not mere functionaries but are “authentic shepherds ... committed to working generously in the service of God’s people, especially the poor and the most vulnerable”.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China was sincere about wanting better relations with the Vatican and the bishops agreement was an important step in improving ties.

“China is willing to continue to meet the Vatican side halfway and have constructive dialogue, increasing understanding and accumulating mutual trust, to promote the process of continuing to improve relations,” Geng said, without elaborating.

Additional reporting by Reuters