The Communist Party of China wasn’t the only non-democratic organisation to have an ‘election’ this week. Argentinia’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen by papal conclave in the Vatican to become Pope Francis I.
Bergoglio’s pope-ification was remarkably swift, cardinals reached a consensus on the second day of conclave, just over a month after Pope Benedict XVI (née Ratzinger) announced his resignation.
Relations between Beijing and the Vatican are on icy terms, despite Benedict’s attempts at outreach. The Vatican-approved Bishop of Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma, has been under house arrest since last December. Shortly after Benedict’s resignation, Beijing issued a curt request that his successor keep his nose out of Chinese business.
The Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, editor in chief of Catholic news service AsiaNews, expects the next pope’s commitment to China to be at least as substantial as Benedict’s.
“First of all, China has a population of 1.3 billion and people are more and more in search of a spiritual soul that was suffocated by materialism. In China, we are living a springtime of faith,” Bernardo said. “Moreover, China is one of the most important actors in the international scene and needs to present itself as a friend of the world, not as a military power, or a pariah disrespectful of human rights.”
Engaging China will first require the next pope to establish a unified approach in the Vatican, said the Rev. Jeroom Heyndrickx, of Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven, who studies the Chinese church.
“On both sides – Beijing and Rome – there are some who favor dialogue and others who oppose. That is the reason why each attempt toward dialogue so far has failed,” he said.
Though no mainland clerics were involved in Francis’s selection, the bishop of Hong Kong, cardinal John Tong, was a member of the conclave.
The International Business Times collected a number of reactions from Chinese netizens to the new pope:
“The new pope looks to be in good physical health, he will have a great responsibility,” one user posted, referencing Benedict, who resigned due to deteriorating health as a result of old age.
“Synchronization with China! They [Catholics] will have their Pope, ours will take office soon too,” a sarcastic blogger wrote.
CNN spoke to a Chinese Catholic priest shortly before the new pope was announced:
“We pray for the new pope,” said Father Francis Zhang, a Beijing priest. “We hope he will be spiritual, dynamic and open minded. We hope he will be more open to China, more pragmatic, and someone who understands very well the Chinese Catholic church.”
Many local Catholics, caught in the middle, say they hope the government will respect the universal traditions of the Vatican.
At the same time, they hope the Vatican can better understand the church in China and reach reconciliation with Beijing.
“We follow China and we also follow the Roman Catholic way,” said Father Zhang, who for years attended an underground church before joining the mainstream “patriotic church.”
But no breakthroughs are expected any time soon.
The incoming pope will have little room to tweak the “ambiguous but still conservative line” pursued by Pope Benedict because the hardliners in the Vatican are simply too strong, said one analyst who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding religious issues in China.
Update #1: Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying addressed Francis’s election at a recent press conference:
China had “two basic principles in dealing with relations with the Vatican”, Hua said at a regular briefing.
“It should sever its so-called diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognise the Chinese government as the sole legal representative of all of China.
“The Vatican should not interfere in China’s internal affairs, including under the pretext of religion.”