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Pope Francis Asks Chinese Catholics to Trust His Deal With Government

Category: Asia,World

ROME — Responding to confusion about his agreement with the Chinese government, Pope Francis on Wednesday urged Chinese Catholics to trust in his decision to unify the Roman and state-run Catholic churches, assuring his often-persecuted flock that he appreciated their sacrifices but that China represented a “land of great opportunities” for the church.

Under the deal announced on Saturday, a historic breakthrough after 70 years of icy relations between the Vatican and Beijing, the pope recognized the legitimacy of seven bishops appointed by the Chinese government and lifted an order excommunicating them. Through three pontificates, the church had tried to reach an accord with China, but the fate of those seven bishops, and the question of who gets to appoint new bishops in the country, had been impassable barriers.

There were few details about the deal in the Saturday announcement, fueling questions about just how much autonomy Francis had given up to make greater inroads into China, the world’s most populous nation, where the growth of Protestantism is far outpacing the spread of Roman Catholicism. That lack of clarity prompted Francis to write a lengthy letter, released on Wednesday, to the estimated 10 to 12 million Catholics in China.

In the letter, he acknowledged “certain confusion” about the agreement, but did not divulge any new details. Instead, invoking his title as the successor of Peter, he asked Chinese Catholics to “place your trust ever more firmly in the Lord of history and in the church’s discernment of his will.”

Francis wrote that in bringing the seven excommunicated bishops back into full communion with Rome, “I ask them to express with concrete and visible gestures their restored unity” with the church and “to remain faithful despite any difficulties.”

That request amounted to an assertion of his authority, but it is still unclear whether Francis will himself select new bishops, choose from candidates selected by the Chinese government, or have veto power over a field of candidates he might deem unworthy. On his return to Rome from Estonia on Tuesday night, the pope said the government would not name the bishops.

“It is a dialogue,” he said on the plane. “But the pope will name them, let that be clear.”

For decades, Chinese Catholics have been forced to choose between churches operating openly, under state control, and “underground” churches headed by bishops secretly chosen by the Vatican.

In the letter, the pope added that he expected “good candidates” for bishop to be Catholic pastors, and not mere government apparatchiks. “It is not a question of appointing functionaries to deal with religious issues, but of finding authentic shepherds,” he wrote.

But the pope added that the provisional agreement, which he said was “necessarily capable of improvement,” was merely “an instrument” for cooperation, and that it would be worthless without a deep commitment to making it work on both sides. To that end, in a section of the letter addressed to China’s leaders, who have for decades persecuted Catholic bishops and other religious minorities, often putting them under house arrest or worse, Pope Francis seemed to insist on more respect for his flock.

“A new style of straightforward daily cooperation needs to develop,” he wrote “between local authorities and ecclesiastical authorities — bishops, priests and community elders — in order to ensure that pastoral activities take place in an orderly manner in harmony with the legitimate expectations of the faithful and the decisions of competent authorities.”

He also asserted the right of Chinese Catholics to speak out against the government. They should be good citizens, he wrote, but being good Christians required pointing out injustice.

“At times, this may also require of them the effort to offer a word of criticism, not out of sterile opposition, but for the sake of building a society that is more just, humane and respectful of the dignity of each person,” he wrote.

He added that he wanted Catholics “to promote the integral development of society by ensuring greater respect for the human person, also in the religious sphere.” And he extended forgiveness to bishops who had broken communion with the Church “not infrequently, due to powerful and undue pressure.”

Francis emphasized that he recognized the sacrifices of Catholics who have worshiped in underground churches, risking persecution, and understood their discontent over the agreement with the government.

“Some feel doubt and perplexity, while others sense themselves somehow abandoned by the Holy See,” he wrote, acknowledging “the gift of your fidelity, your constancy amid trials.”

The announcement of the Vatican’s breakthrough deal with China led critics, including prelates within the church, to accuse Francis of selling out the members of his flock who had suffered for the church. Francis argued that Catholics outside of China now had “an important duty: to accompany our brothers and sisters in China” and recalled the example of Abraham, who was called by God to set out for an unknown land to receive his inheritance.

“Had Abraham demanded ideal social and political conditions before leaving his land, perhaps he would never have set out,” the pope wrote, adding, “it was not historical changes that made him put his trust in God; rather, it was his pure faith that brought about a change in history.”


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