In a very unusual letter (English translation here) addressed to the “bishops, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful” in mainland China, Pope Benedict XVI (and he’s got a cool Chinese name too – 教宗本笃十六世) has openly hoped for a renewal of relations between China and the Vatican. In the letter, the Pope noted that “there are signs, in China too, of the tendency towards materialism and hedonism, which are spreading from the big cities to the entire country” and called on Chinese believers to remember that “the new evangelization demands the proclamation of the Gospel to modern man, with a keen awareness that, just as during the first Christian millennium the Cross was planted in Europe and during the second in the American continent and in Africa, so during the third millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in the vast and vibrant Asian continent”.
The 28-page document also sought to reassure the Chinese government that the Vatican did not seek to be a political challenge to its authority:
Likewise, therefore, the Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State; rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ to men and women, as the Saviour of the world, basing herself – in carrying out her proper apostolate – on the power of God. As I recalled in my Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, ‘‘The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State.’.
Nevertheless, the Pope remained very pragmatic in his hopes for restored relations between the Holy See and China:
I realize that the normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China requires time and presupposes the good will of both parties. For its part, the Holy See always remains open to negotiations, so necessary if the difficulties of the present time are to be overcome.
The Vatican’s right to appoint bishops has been a source of deep contention between itself and the Chinese government, and to that, the Pope discussed the principles by which “legitimate Bishops” are appointed and recognised, and maintained that “the present College of Catholic Bishops of China cannot be recognized as an Episcopal Conference by the Apostolic See”.
In closing, the Pope called for the date 24 May as one which could “in the future become an occasion for the Catholics of the whole world to be united in prayer with the Church which is in China. This day is dedicated to the liturgical memorial of Our Lady, Help of Christians, who is venerated with great devotion at the Marian Shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai.” Shanghaiist found this pretty surprising, because we never thought our city was actually home to a Marian Shrine! Apparently it is also the “first basilica in the Far East“!
So will this letter really help thaw relations between Rome and China? Many remain skeptical it seems. According to an unnamed Hong Kong priest interviewed by the New York Times: “I doubt that this will help overcome the impasse with the Chinese authorities, because the letter says that it’s up to China to recognize the church should operate in China as it does in 173 countries, even places like Cuba, which is Communist, or Japan, which has strong nationalism — in all of which the pope nominates bishops.”
Image from pope_benedict.