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´Papal letter has become part of history´

  • China
  • July 17 2009
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Father Peter Peng Jiandao of Handan in Hebei province received his formation in the underground Church before he surfaced to work openly.

He recently wrote a commentary for UCA News in Chinese on the occasion of the second anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI´s letter to Chinese Catholics that the Vatican released on June 30, 2007. The letter highlights theological points about the Church, including episcopal appointments, and provides practical guidelines for Church life and evangelization in China.






Father Peter Peng Jiandao




Father Peng, 44, was baptized in 1982 and was ordained a priest in 1990. He enjoys writing and has a blog where he shares his pastoral ministry and observations on the development of the Church in China.

His commentary, translated into English, follows:

Chinese Catholics were excited to receive the Pope´s pastoral letter dated Pentecost Sunday May 27, 2007, after having suffered different kinds of persecution.

The Chinese government blocked the letter five hours after it was made public on the Internet. But this was long enough for Catholic netizens who waited overnight in front of computers. Once the document was released, it took them just a few minutes to download and print. Copies of the letter then spread nationwide within days. The government was sensitive to this, but it seemed could do nothing about it.

Both the "open" and "underground" Church communities first welcomed this letter but then went their separate ways after some excitement. The underground Church kept fighting for its faith principles while the open Church continued to uphold the banner of patriotism. More than 200 Church representatives took part in the commemoration of the golden jubilees of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) in July 2007 and of the "self-election and self-ordination of bishops" in December 2008. Among such participants, quite a number of them were Vatican-approved bishops.

No matter what the Vatican said, Chinese Catholics kept doing things their way. It is something difficult for Europeans to understand. The Holy See may be surprised to see that no one seriously implemented the contents of the letter, although it was warmly welcomed. (Now retired) Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong encouraged mainland bishops to emulate the martyrdom spirit of Saint Stephen. But would they listen? One mainland bishop remarked, "We are under Communist rule in mainland China. Things are not so easy."

The underground Church leaders were grateful for the letter as the Pope praised them for not "compromising," but were sad to see the revocation of special faculties given to their community, and the Pope´s instruction of reconciling with the open Church, which many in the underground community have opposed.

Even though it was a difficult choice to reconcile with the open Church, some "holy" underground Church leaders took great steps forward. To name a few, Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo of Zhengding in Hebei province accepted open Church priests from Shijiazhuang diocese for the sake of unity. Bishop Stephen Li Side of Tianjin also accepted some open Church priests, removing years of enmity between the two communities. Bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar in Heilongjiang province also did the same.

How has the papal letter influenced the Church in China? Many leaders in the open Church will possibly insist on their old ways. The Eighth National Congress of Catholic Representatives would still be an assembly of Church leaders. Their speeches would still uphold the principle of an "independent, autonomous and self-managed" Church. Most of the bishops would still have their own philosophy of life, which the Europeans would never understand. This is an important reason why China and the Vatican cannot reach an agreement on building ties.

The Europeans are nurtured by Christian religious thinking and often emphasize contractual agreements and universal love, whereas the Chinese are deeply influenced by Confucianism. Though the Chinese talk about charitable love, it is greatly different from universal love as the former includes hierarchical love, such as the love between father and son, between the emperor and his officials.

China´s ancient image as "a nation of etiquette" is related to "face" (giving respect). As such, mainland Church leaders joined the celebrations of the CCPA and the "self-election and self-ordination" of bishops because of "face." They were not really under a "so-called threat" or a "complete loss of freedom." It is no longer the time of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the Chinese government does give its people a certain extent of freedom now. The point is whether mainland bishops should talk about "giving face" or "faith."

For the Church in China, the papal letter has become part of history. No one in the open Church studies or propagates it anymore. The letter seems not to be a concern for them. Some underground Catholics continue to study it but with an "uncompromising" spirit. It is sad to see the papal letter appear "like a shooting star" that serves only to be an epochal symbol for the Church in China.
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