Vatican says Chinese church growing; pope to write Chinese Catholics
By Cindy Wooden VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- At the end of a two-day meeting to discuss the status of the Catholic community in mainland China and the problems it faces, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI would write a letter to the country's Catholics.
Despite continuing instances of persecution and pressure, the number of Catholics in China is growing and the vast majority of bishops and priests have recognized the authority of the pope, said the statement issued at the end of the Jan. 19-20 meeting chaired by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state.
"In the light of the troubled history of the church in China and the main events of the past few years, there was an examination of the most serious and urgent church problems, which need adequate solutions related to the basic principles of the divine constitution of the church and of religious liberty," the statement said.
The Vatican did not say when Pope Benedict's letter to the Catholics of China would be written or released.
After decades of harsh persecution of Catholics who maintained their ties to the Vatican and stringent efforts by the government to exclude Vatican influence over all areas of church life in the country, the communist government appeared to be relaxing its stance.
In 2005 several bishops were ordained who were approved both by the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Vatican. However, in 2006 the patriotic association moved forward with the ordinations of three bishops without Vatican consent.
The Jan. 20 Vatican statement said Pope Benedict called the meeting to deepen the Vatican's knowledge of the situation of the Catholic Church in China, inviting bishops from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan and "those who, for the Holy See, follow the Chinese question most closely."
While the Vatican did not name the participants, it was widely reported that they included Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong, retired Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-hsi of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and Bishop Jose Lai Hung-seng of Macau.
In addition to officials from the Vatican Secretariat of State, news reports said Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also attended.
The Vatican described the discussions as "broad and detailed" and marked by frankness on the part of the participants.
During the meeting, it said, participants recognized the "shining witness offered by bishops, priests and faithful who, without giving in to compromise, maintained their fidelity to the see of Peter, sometimes at the price of great suffering."
At the same time, the participants noted "with particular joy" that "today almost all of the bishops and priests are in communion with the supreme pontiff," whether they are working in the underground church or with the patriotic association.
Despite restrictions, the statement said, the Catholic Church in China has shown a surprising numerical growth and its members are "called to be witnesses of Christ, to look forward with hope" and to offer Gospel-based values to the rapidly changing Chinese society.
The Vatican also said it hoped to continue a "respectful and constructive dialogue with government authorities to overcome the misunderstandings of the past" and to normalize relations to ensure "the peaceful and fruitful life of faith in the church and to work together for the good of the Chinese people and for peace in the world."
Anthony Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the patriotic association, told the British news agency Reuters Jan. 22 that he was encouraged by the Vatican's statement.
"I am more optimistic than before," especially since, he said, the acknowledgment of the growth of the Catholic community is a tacit acknowledgment that religious freedom exists in China.
The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong quoted Cardinal Zen as saying the Vatican has not changed its judgment that full religious freedom did not exist in China.
The Catholic Church's position always has been that religious freedom includes freedom for Catholics to be in full communion with the pope and for the Vatican to name bishops for the church.
Cardinal Zen also was quoted as telling the Hong Kong newspaper that the Vatican would establish a commission on China to continue to monitor the situation of the church in the country and to provide a coordinated response to developments there.