Pope Benedict XVI signed a historic letter addressing the Church in China on May 27, the Solemnity of Pentecost, in 2007. He clearly stated the mission and firm stance of the Catholic Church. Two years after it was published, I was saddened by the indifference of Chinese bishops and wrote a commentary
expressing regret that the letter was like “a short-lived shooting star.” Today, based on my observation in recent years, I feel the letter is bringing subtle change to the China Church. In his letter, the theologian-pope discussed the Church’s situation from a theological perspective, particularly the fact that the Church in the People’s Republic of China is still suffering from divisions. Stressing principles that the Church cannot abandon, he also expressed hope that all Catholics could work together for the good of the Chinese people and the world once they overcame misunderstandings of the past. The spilt in the China Church makes people feel sad but the pope said, “No one in the Church is a foreigner, 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.” From this, we can understand why the pope recognized so many illegitimate bishops. In the past, the loyal “underground” Church community could hardly figure out the Holy See’s principles and policies, often feeling that it was deceived. In fact, the pope is accepting the return of the prodigal son with a fatherly heart. His letter also shows his thorough understanding of the plight of “complex concrete situations” in the China Church. Between the lines Chinese Catholics, especially clergy, can deeply feel that they belong to the communion of the universal Church, which no earthly force can separate. The pope’s fatherly care and earnest teaching has an awakening drive to the China Church. Though we cannot see any earth-shaking change and life seems to go on as usual, I believe there will be fewer and fewer people who really follow the structure that is independent from the Vatican, as demonstrated in the following cases. Bishop John Liu Jinghe of Tangshan refused to ordain the illicit bishop of Chengde in November 2010. Bishop Joseph Li Liangui of Cangzhou (Xianxian) did penance after returning from the Chengde ordination and to show his determination to maintain the Catholic faith, he refused to attend the government-sanctioned National Congress of Catholic Representatives, which the Vatican has asked Chinese bishops to avoid, in December 2010. Bishop Stephen Yang Xiangtai of Handan secretly ordained his Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Sun Jigen in June 2011 to avoid the proposed participation of an illegitimate bishop. The following month, diocesan priests from Shenyang (Liaoning) gathered at the Bishop’s House to pray together and protect their bishop, Paul Pei Junmin, from being taken away by government officials to an illicit bishop ordination. Priests of Liaocheng (Yanggu) diocese refused to concelebrate Mass with their bishop, Joseph Zhao Fengchang, who participated in illicit ordinations on several occasions. Priests of neighboring Heze diocese also rejected him as their administrator when assigned by the Beijing-based Church authorities. Until the prelate had no choice but to ask for the Vatican’s pardon, Liaocheng priests only concelebrated the Chrism Mass with him on Holy Thursday. These actions are the best response of Chinese clergy to the papal letter as well as their awakening to secure the Church hierarchy. The letter also stressed that the offices of teaching and governing of bishops is “conferred by God through the grace of the sacrament of the Holy Orders,” but “by their very nature can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college of bishops.” After Fathers Paul Lei Shiyin of Leshan and Joseph Huang Bingzhang of Shantou disregarded Church law to receive illicit Episcopal ordination, the pope declared their excommunications. Such a decision maintained not only the dignity of Church law, but also the pope’s primacy of Peter. The excommunications have discouraged some candidates who might receive “self-ordination.” Some dioceses held up their planned Episcopal ordinations last year, as their candidates have not yet received papal approval. The vast majority of priests and laypeople hoped their bishop candidates would have it before being ordained. Such signs show clearly Pope Benedict’s letter to the Church in China has borne some fruit. Father Peter Peng Jiandao is a priest of Handan (Yongnian) diocese, northern Hebei province. He received priestly formation in the underground Church community before he surfaced to work openly.
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