Father Zhang Guilin (left) and Father Wang Zhong of Xiwanzi Diocese were taken away by the government on Oct. 11 to study religious policy and are still under detention. (Photo supplied)
The pope's primacy in the Catholic Church was recognized by the Chinese government for the first time with the signing of the Sino-Vatican provisional agreement on bishop appointments on Sept. 22.
On the surface, the agreement paves the way for the government-sanctioned church and the underground church to reach unity. More optimistic church members hope the government will show more goodwill to the church through this agreement, letting Catholics follow their faith and expanding the "cage" of church life.
However, the actual situation of the mainland church now is exactly the opposite.
Since the agreement was signed, the United Front Work Department and the religious affairs bureaus have launched a new round of tough transformation missions for underground clerics, forcing them to participate in religious "education classes" organized by the government. It is an exercise in brainwashing.
According to a priest who has just been "transformed," clerics must agree to the principles of independence, autonomy and self-governance of the church and accept the leadership of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). Authorities also forced underground priests to concelebrate Mass and be pictured with government-designated "official bishops."
This new round of transformation is particularly serious in Hebei province, where the number of Catholics is almost one million.
In addition to the forcible closure of two gathering places in Shadifang and Qujiazhuang parishes of Xuanhua Diocese one month ago, four priests in Zhangjiakou were also taken away and forced to attend classes by the government. Those priests are Father Zhang Guilin and Father Wang Zhong of Xiwanzi and Father Su Guipeng and Father Zhao of Xuanhua.
Since 2009, Father Zhang has been serving in Chongli, a large parish in Xiwanzi with nearly 4,000 Catholics. He has not joined the CCPA or registered with the government. He has been in a semi-overt state.
Father Zhang has developed the parish by building churches and helping Catholics in all aspects of culture and faith. He teaches the illiterate how to read, organizes foreign language classes for the educated youth, and teaches Catholics the etiquette of getting along with people with half an eye on welcoming visitors to the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.
In cooperating with government departments to welcome domestic and foreign guests to the Olympics, the church aims to demonstrate its vitality and social services while taking the opportunity to do some evangelizing work.
Similarly, Father Wang has been serving Guyuan for more than a decade, bearing all hardship without any complaint. To develop the parish and foster the faith of Catholics, he fulfils his duties as a shepherd. He was sentenced to three years of labor reform by the government in July 2007 for building a church in Guyuan County. He was released in July 2010 and returned to his parish.
However, these two good shepherds were taken away by the government on Oct. 11. According to the United Front Work Department, they have gone to Zhangjiakou City to study religious policy for five or six days.
It has emerged that they were first taken to a place in Zhangjiakou, where they began to receive brainwashing studies. Then they were taken to Cangzhou, Shijiazhuang and Baoding, three cities in Hebei, and then to Beijing.
The priests were forced to meet different CCPA bishops, who tried to persuade them to accept the principles of independence, autonomy and self-administration of the church, to apply for priest certification and to switch the official church. They said that only in these ways would they be legalized by the government and recognized as legitimate clerics.
The priests did not make any compromises but followed the principle mentioned in the letter of Pope Benedict XVI to Catholics in China in 2007: the Patriotic Association is incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
The government had promised to send the priests back to their parishes on the sixth night. However, while parishioners were waiting for the priests, they discovered that Father Zhang had been taken to an unknown place. Father Wang was also taken away after being sent back to Guyuan for a few days.
The faithful are very worried about the priests. Father Zhang's 80-year-old mother is so anxious about her son that her blood pressure has shot up. His family also went to the local United Front Work Department to enquire about the priest's situation and see when he would return. They were told that he would return after about five days but that never happened. Both priests have been detained for more than a month.
Catholics have been holding a Eucharistic adoration for 24 hours a day, praying for the priests and hoping that they will return soon and continue to shepherd the flock that God has entrusted to them.
On Nov. 3, a high-ranking official from Hebei provincial government, accompanied by officials, visited Chongli Church and spoke strongly to Catholics. "Don't think that signing the agreement with the Vatican will allow you not to join the Patriotic Association. Refusing to join the association means you will not be legalized and will be banned," he said.
A priest who was forced to attend government classes wrote a poem from which we can see the determination and helplessness of the priests in the face of such difficulties:
A soul test
What is this period of time?
The barrier to the bottom line of the conscience has been demolished.
In the past, even in troubled times, loyalty could still be achieved;
Nowadays, the soil that breeds heroes no longer exists,
The podium that honors the warriors is also destroyed.
Ah! Strenuously maintaining the faith for so many years!
For you, what can I offer today?
Silent, the Lord can pity!