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Pope Benedict's letter to Chinese Catholics revisited in Hong Kong

Discussion comes at a time of differing opinions on Vatican-Beijing relations

ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong

ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong

Published: May 11, 2017 10:18 AM GMT

Updated: May 11, 2017 10:37 AM GMT

Pope Benedict's letter to Chinese Catholics revisited in Hong Kong

The entrance procession of a Mass in Taiyuan Diocese in Shanxi province on April 20. In 2007, Pope Benedict wrote a pastoral letter to Chinese Catholics to provide "guidelines concerning the life of the church and the task of evangelization in China." (ucanews.com photo)

Pope Benedict XVI's letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007 is as important today as it was 10 years ago, said speakers at a recent seminar in Hong Kong.

The pastoral letter should be reread as a reminder of what path the China Church should follow, speakers said. The May 7 seminar organized by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Diocese comes at a time when the opinions of leading Catholics in Hong Kong and Macau — bishops and laypeople — differ on how renewed links with the church in China should be managed.

All are agreed that there should be no compromise on state control of the church. However, some believe that a firm wall of resistance to any engagement with the Chinese government should be maintained while others seek discussion to resolve the issue of the appointment of bishops.  

Pope Benedict's letter was written to provide "guidelines concerning the life of the church and the task of evangelization in China." However, the letter received a hostile reception from the Chinese government and others in China largely due to the lack of consultation, its critics claim.

Hong Kong seminar speakers believed the letter to be one of the most important papal instructions to the China Church.

One seminar speaker, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, said that the letter should be read seriously to closely understand its real message.

The pastoral letter deals with issues such as the Vatican's willingness to dialogue with China over church territorial jurisdictions, reconciliation within the China church, state agencies' control of church life, the different circumstances of Chinese bishops, and the pope's authority in appointing bishops.

It also contains guidelines for pastoral life, including concelebration of Mass with clergy in the government-sanctioned open community, and announces the end of special privileges given to the underground community since the 1980s that allowed bishops to ordain successors before getting Vatican approval in time of persecution.

Anthony Lam Sui-ki, executive secretary of the Holy Spirit Study Center of the Hong Kong Diocese, said rereading the letter has been the only open instruction from Pope Francis to the China Church.

Cardinal Zen said he was disappointed that the effectiveness of the letter was partly lost due to translation mistakes and different interpretations by certain church people with vested interests in China.

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Even after the Vatican corrected those mistakes a year later, a misleading message has passed across China that it is fine for the underground community to join the open community that is controlled by the government through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, said Cardinal Zen.

The letter irritated Beijing, which demanded the Vatican not to publish it.

"A copy was sent to Chinese bishops four days before the release and 10 days earlier for Beijing. But Beijing did not allow the Vatican to release the letter. A Vatican official told the Chinese officials that we are not asking for your approval. It was just courtesy to inform," said Cardinal Zen.

"It is obvious that up till now, the Chinese government still regards religion is something belongs to it," the cardinal said.

Observers say that the letter was not received well by the ruling communists because its stance on the state-run organizations such as the National Congress for the Catholic Representatives, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Chinese bishops' conference which are run by the Chinese Communist Party.

The Hong Kong seminar was held as the Vatican and Beijing conduct ongoing negotiations behind closed doors over the appointment of bishops in China.

The deal, long sought after by the Vatican, would be for Beijing to accept some 20 bishop candidates that the Vatican has appointed in recent years and more than 30 underground bishops that are not recognized by Beijing. In exchange, the Holy See will pardon seven China-appointed bishops that have no papal approval.

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