Pope Francis (C) with Hong Kong's Bishop Stephen Chow (R) and its retired Bishop Cardinal John Tong (L) after a Mass at the Steppe Arena in Ulaanbaatar on Sept 3, 2023. Pope Francis addressed Catholics in China in impromptu comments following a Mass, telling them to be 'good Christians and good citizens.' (Photo by Pedro PARDO / AFP)
Pope Francis directly addressed Catholics in China on Sept. 3 in impromptu comments following a Mass, telling them to be "good Christians and good citizens," in an apparent attempt to ease tensions with Beijing.
“I would like to take advantage of your presence [Bishops of Hong Kong] to send warm greetings to the noble Chinese people. And I ask the Chinese Catholics to be good Christians and good citizens,” the pope said in Italian.
It was the second apparent overture to the Chinese Communist Party in two days, following Francis telling a gathering of missionaries on Sept. 3 that governments had "nothing to fear" from the Catholic Church.
A Korean bishop, who frequently visits China but preferred not to be named, shared his insights at the conclusion of the Steppe Arena Mass.
Proficient in Italian, he provided his perspective on the potential impact of this visit on China's relations: "It's a challenging situation. They are hesitant to fully open up. However, Pope Francis has attempted to convey a gesture of solidarity to Chinese Catholic believers, which is a significant sign."
He said the authorities in China are concerned about maintaining strict control over the people's allegiance to the state. The Church, on the other hand, has a history of liberating minds and promoting independent thinking.
“This fundamental difference creates apprehensions,” the Korean bishop explained.
Many traveling Chinese Catholics told authorities at home they were traveling to Mongolia for tourism, according to interviews with AFP.
Some Chinese Catholics have traveled to Mongolia to catch a glimpse of Francis up close.Outside a Church-run shelter home, which Pope Francis visited on Sept. 4, a group of women sang in Mandarin, wiping away tears as the pope's black car passed.
"Dear Pope, our best wishes for you," they sang.
'Not against our country'
China's government, which is officially atheist, is wary of the Catholic Church on its territory and exercises strict control over all recognized religious institutions.
A Chinese woman from the northwestern city of Xi'an who attended Mass on Sunday described the difficulty of making the pilgrimage, saying two organizers of her tour had been detained back in China.
"Let me tell you, I feel so ashamed to hold the [Chinese] national flag," she said.
"But I need to hold it and let the pope know how difficult it is for us."
Another woman from the Chinese province of Hebei said she felt "so blessed and happy to be able to be here and see the pope".
"To have our own religion doesn't mean that we are against our country," she added.
The Holy See has sought a rapprochement with China for years, and renewed a contentious 2018 deal last year that gives both parties — and not just the Church — a say in appointing bishops in China.
Critics have called the move a dangerous concession in exchange for a presence in the country.
A former Soviet satellite state that has been a democracy since 1992, Buddhist-majority Mongolia has one of the world's youngest and smallest Catholic communities, estimated at approximately 1,400 people among its population of 3.3 million.
It has just 25 Catholic priests — only two of them Mongolian — and 33 nuns.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed in its Constitution.
Mongolia has sought to toe a neutral line with its expansionist neighbors Russia and China, on whom it depends for imports of energy and the export of its coal, even as it reaches out to third countries, including the United States and South Korea, for balance.