01-06-2008 - Traces, n. 6

The Risk of Faith

Cardinal Zen Speaks
It Is Possible to Live This Way, even in China

A year since the letter from Benedict XVI to the Chinese Catholics (and on the eve
of the Olympics, when the eyes of the world will be on Beijing), the Bishop of Hong Kong speaks of how the Church lives in his country, amidst great suffering and with a great hope

edited by Riccardo Piol

Can we live this way in China, too? “Of course, of course you can!!” Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun can hardly believe his ears. Before answering, he repeats my words to see if he has heard aright, if I really did ask: “Is it possible to be a Christian in China?” He looks at me for a moment over his spectacles, astonished and uncertain, then begins to speak. And faithful to the title of the book-length interview he presented at the book fair in Turin, Italy, he answers “undiplomatically.“ The Bishop of Hong Kong is well known (and has sometimes been criticized) for his bluntness. He says, “It’s important and one has a duty to speak frankly, because if the truth is not known, no one can help out in this very complex situation.”
Then, going straight to the point, he says what he thinks about China and the situation of the twelve million Christians–1% of the population–who live there, and who have a special place in the heart of Benedict XVI. Last year was notable for his repeated references to them, from the famous letter of May 2007 to the recent papal allusion to the coming Olympics (“an event of great importance for the entire human family”), and the Prayer to Our Lady of Seshan, written for the Day of Prayer for the Church in China on May 24th, eliciting erratic responses from the Beijing government.

The news is bewildering. The Beijing Philharmonic gave a concert in honor of the Pope in the Vatican, and there was a lot of talk about China adopting a more conciliatory policy. Then from China came news of the ban on Christian  pilgrimages to the Marian shrines in the country. How do you explain these contradictory signals?
The situation is complicated. These were different initiatives at different levels. Now we can guess that the acts of rapprochement and openness, like the concert, most likely came from high up in the Chinese government–the people in charge of foreign policy, most likely–while the opposition and the ban were adopted at the level of the Patriotic Association and the Religious Affairs Bureau, which control the official Church and keep an eye on the underground Church. Currently, they’re being very hostile. Without wishing to belittle the friendly gesture of the concert, I must say there are a lot of very ominous signs.
May 24th was the day of the Blessed Virgin Help of Christians, and the Pope invited all Catholics to pray for the Church in China. I’m from Shanghai and a Salesian, so I launched the idea of a mass pilgrimage by the Hong Kong community to the great shrine at Sheshan, my hometown. At once, the government told us they didn’t like the idea. So we quietly canceled our plans. We didn’t want to cause trouble. But the problem is that there was a crackdown on pilgrimages in continental China as well. A priest of the clandestine Church sent a message to his brother in Taiwan that since May 1st he has been under surveillance 24 hours a day. The repression is so harsh that one day his controllers prevented him from leaving home to go shopping and went to the market for him. It’s a real clampdown on freedom, inexplicable except as a form of ostracism. Some are saying that they didn’t like the Pope’s invitation to pray. They say, “Why pray for China? We haven’t got any problems. Everything’s fine here.”

So, a year since the Pope’s letter to the Chinese Catholics, the outlook is still troubled?
Things haven’t changed greatly, but perhaps I’m too impatient. And when a situation has gone on for so long, it can’t change in a moment. But we don’t have a stronger card than the Pope’s letter, and though, when it comes to choosing between patience and impatience, I tend to favor the latter, we have to let some time go by. It will get results in the long run.

What was the response to the letter?
Contrary to expectations, the government did not immediately launch an attack on the letter, which had been submitted to it beforehand. On the day of its publication, it could actually be downloaded on the Web. The day after, it was impossible. Anyway, we expected an immediate and stronger reaction.
How did the Catholic community react?
There was a lot of enthusiasm, especially among the younger priests. They organized a number of seminars and meetings. Then came the reaction from the Patriotic Association and the Bureau of Religious Affairs. They began to complain, and they organized indoctrination sessions for believers and priests of the official Church, which they control. It’s a pity they failed to appreciate the Pope’s sincerity and friendship, but perhaps I was too optimistic in thinking there would be no resistance. The government’s control over the Church beggars imagination. It’s complete and unrelenting. I’m not speaking just of the appointment of bishops without the approval of Rome, but also the life of the Church itself. For example: the Bishops’ Conference is convened by government organs and is kind of a farce. For bishops and priests, it’s slavery and a continuous humiliation that is difficult to escape.

In his letter, the Pope urges the Chinese Church to seek unity. Given the divisions caused and supported by the government between the official Church and the clandestine one, is a reconciliation possible?
The Church in China is one. Almost all of the oldest irregular bishops [appointed without the approval of Rome] have asked the Pope to be legitimized, knowing that otherwise they are injuring the unity of the Church. Almost all the bishops are with the Holy Father. Right now, however, it’s important not to create confusion but to distinguish between two things: the invitation to reconciliation on one side and the problem of whether to belong to the official government organization on the other. What we are being called to today is a reconciliation of minds and hearts, since both the members of the underground Church and those of the official Church understand that the Church is universal and the Pope is the common father of this great family. But being united in the same organization is a completely different matter. Since the official Church is closely controlled and the government hardly seems to have changed its religious policy, then this is not the moment for the faithful of the “underground” Church to come out into the open. That would mean giving up the little freedom they have in secrecy. It would mean giving themselves up to government control.
Hearing you talk about secrecy, the “underground” Church and government control, I’m prompted to ask: Is it possible to be a Christian in China today?
Of course, of course it is! People are not completely free, but they can be Christians. We’ve endured a lot and are still suffering. But the history of our Church is full of witnesses who have given their lives for the mission and to show their faith. If we look to them–some in the distant past and others more recent–they’re the strong point of our community. And then there’s another factor...

I told the Pope at the first meeting of the Commission for the Church in China: “The Communists are afraid of the Madonna of Fatima because she’s ‘anti-Communist.’ But they don’t know that Mary Help of Christians is even more powerful and combative: she won the victories of Lepanto and Vienna!” I pray for her to sustain us and illuminate our rulers, to enable them to understand that our country, together with economic progress, needs a progress of the spirit.


From Mao’s Long March to the
Absolute Power of the Politburo

With 1.32 billion people, the Chinese People’s Republic is the most populous state on the planet. Its present political order dates from 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party (PCC) took power. The Party chairman was Mao Zedong, who guided the country up until 1976. The current President is Hu Jintao, Chairman of the PCC. The only political party, it has 70 million members. Power is vested in the Politburo’s nine-member Standing Committee, which defines policy and appoints office-holders. Over the past 100 years, millions of people have flocked from the countryside to cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong, creating a marked social imbalance. The government controls the immense territory (9,596,960 km²) through a dense network of officials and a very rigid system of laws: from birth control (it is calculated that the “one-child policy,” which imposes a tax on larger families and encourages abortions, has prevented 350 million births over the past thirty years), to censorship and repression (as with the intervention of the army in Tibet in recent months). (P.P.)


Two Parallel Lives:
“Official” and “Underground”

The persecution of the Catholic Church began when the Communist Party took power in 1949 and founded the People’s Republic. In 1952, after the expulsion of the Papal Nuncio from Beijing, the nunciature was first moved to Taipei (Taiwan) and then suppressed. Ever since, there have been two parallel churches. One is “official,” controlled by the Patriotic Association and directly dependent on the government. The government appoints bishops, who exercise their office without the approval of Rome. Then there is the “underground” Church, faithful to the Church of Rome. It is not recognized by the government but kept under close control and still persecuted today. Many such Catholics are locked up in Chinese prisons; the underground bishops, priests, and monks are often beaten, arrested, or dragged off to “study sessions” (where they are subjected to brainwashing to make them join the Patriotic Association). In China, there are estimated to be between 12 and 15 million Catholics, with 74 official bishops (some of whom are not recognized by Rome) and 46 clandestine bishops (in 2006, a dozen or so were under house arrest and 3 in prison). There are some 2,700 priests, of whom almost two-thirds are clandestine. The percentages for the over 5,000 nuns are similar. (P.P.)