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Politicking, divisions – but many reasons for hopeCardinal O'Brien on the health of the Catholic Church in China
25 July 2012, 9:00
It is indeed a privilege being with you for this conference, organised here at Swanwick by the National Justice and Peace Network of England and Wales in collaboration with Cultural Exchange with China, whose tenth anniversary we celebrate at this time. As you know, one of the purposes of Cultural Exchange with China, with the help of the Columban Fathers and Sisters, was to build bridges with the Catholic Churches of Britain and China and in that we must all acknowledge that it has been remarkably successful.
I am aware that there are many more people expert in China than myself – my only claim to fame has been one visit to China almost five years ago now along with Fr Eamonn O'Brien, the Columban Father who is responsible for Cultural Exchange with China and the chairperson of this national Justice and Peace Network, and a priest colleague of my own, Mgr David Gemmell, who sadly died some months after our return from China.
Consequently I would hope to speak of the visit itself which I made; I would then like to give some of my impressions following on that visit; and following on that I would like to consider some pointers as to the way ahead at this present time.
My visit to China took place from Friday 19 to Monday 29 October 2007 at the invitation of Fr Eamonn and Cultural Exchange with China. I had always been interested in China since my early years in Ireland when my family faithfully bought the Columban magazine Far East. I am delighted to still be able to keep up-to-date with that same Far East in my present position as Archbishop and Cardinal in Scotland!
Further my interest in China was aroused through the Scottish Churches China Group and a visit to Edinburgh by Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai in which he was looking for my pastoral help. Further at the time of my departure Pope Benedict XVI had published his famous Letter to China and I was wondering just what the response of the peoples whom I would meet to that particular letter would be. In addition on my arrival in China with my colleagues the Government of China had changed the status of my programme from 'private and pastoral' to 'official' - so that, along with my colleagues, we were able to live and travel more luxuriously than we would ever had dreamt but also had to suffer the inconvenience of officials from the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) wherever we went.
However the pastoral work which I accomplished was basically much the same as I have accomplished on previous pastoral trips abroad - in Africa, Central or South America, and Asia. I invariably begin with a visit to the local bishop and the local church and civil officials; I celebrate whatever public Masses I can and visit local schools, hospitals and institutions; and when I am in areas of the world where our Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund helps particular projects, I invariably visit them.
I found all of the local bishops whom I met open, warm and welcoming including the bishops of Xian, Beijing, and Shanghai. We also visited Cardinal Zen the Bishop of Hong Kong who was created Cardinal in the Consistory after me in 2005, and met his then Auxiliary Bishop, Bishop John Tong, now his successor as archbishop and also cardinal.
Priests, religious sisters and seminarians were the same as anywhere in the world - interested in world situations and how we regarded China and its people. It was also a privilege to meet with a great cross section of the lay people - invariably after liturgies which I led or at which I was present.
I am aware that I was visiting China in a very special and privileged way and was only visiting the 'rich East' as compared to the 'poor West'. I was also aware that I did not have access to every group of individuals within our Catholic Church at this present time. Invariably the Bishops and Priests whom I had met were members of the 'official Church' (the registered one) and were not part of the 'underground Church' (unregistered) whose members often lived in dire circumstances and were frequently subject to persecution.
However I was aware of a Church and a society in China both of which were vibrant and open to new ideas. All seemed to be looking forward to evermore open relationships to the rest of the world and in a special way seemed to be playing a more important part on the world stage.
During my visit I met by chance two different groups of visitors from Scotland at the terracotta warriors site in Xian - members of the Scottish Churches China Group from Edinburgh and a group of secondary school children from Fife - both within my own archdiocese.
I would summarise my impressions under three headings as follows:
Initially I was more than impressed at the history of the civilisation of China leading up to its present situation. One might say that perhaps China was one of the world's greatest civilisations in earlier times. One has only to walk along the great wall of China, built in the third century BC; one has only to visit the forbidden city completed in 1420 AD and opened gradually to the people of China as recently as 1925; one has only to look in awe at the treasures recently unearthed in 1974 under the City of Xian including the vast army of terracotta warriors, with much more excavation to be undertaken - to realise that China had been a civilised nation many centuries ago.
Secondly, considering the present situation in China one might ask what of its 'spirituality'. We might ask as to where the 'soul' of Shanghai lay as we look at its City's plans for the future. I would continue to ask where is the soul of China in the face of increased secularisation of society and a wealth hitherto unknown. The daily newspaper I read while in China said: 'China is expected to overtake Germany as the third largest economy of the world only behind US and Japan'. It was quite amazing to read reports from the closing session of the Communist Party of China 17th National Congress when for the first time in its history the Communist Part of China mentioned the world 'religion' in an amendment to its constitution. The Church has its proper role to play in strengthening and developing the spirituality of the people of China. As stated by Pope Benedict XVI in his letter of 27 May 2007: 'Let China rest assure that the Catholic Church sincerely proposes to offer, once again, humble and disinterested service in the area of our competence, for the good of Chinese Catholics and for the good of all the inhabitants of the country.'
With regards to my impressions, there is also the history of the recent and present persecution of the Catholic Church in China, which does affect so much of what is developing in China at this present time. That history of the recent persecution is well known and documented. In the 1950s there was the expulsion of valiant women and men from Europe who had come to China as missionaries - this expulsion leaving the Catholic Church without many of its experienced leaders. We saw the birth of the 'unregistered Church', basically working underground to hand on the Catholic Christian faith; while the 'registered Church' worked more closely in collaboration with the State leading to the formation of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. This caused a 'painful situation of serious difference and caused division both among the Clergy and among the lay faithful' as indicated by Pope Benedict XVI in his recent letter. And those difficulties continue down to this present time.
One must first of all see a great pointer as to the way ahead in that letter of Pope Benedict XVI of 2007. Openings were indicated to those who wished to respond to them and as a result there was the reconciliation of many bishops previously ordained without the Mandate of the Holy See to full communion with our Church. This represented a wonderful step forward and has strengthened the faith of priests and lay faithful and built up unity in dioceses. It has been indicated that of all the Bishops of our Church in China there are now perhaps only 10% who are not recognised by both the Holy See and by the Government. However, often a 'cat and mouse' game seems to be still continuing - with sometimes candidates proposed by the Holy See not being recognised by the Government; while sometimes the Government ensures that candidates are ordained Bishops without the full Mandate of the Holy See. It is fervently to be hoped that these situation soon come to an end. We should all look forward to the day when all Bishops will be in full communion with the Holy Father in their own Episcopal Conference. As the Pope said: 'Such an Episcopal Conference expresses the fraternal communion of all the Bishops of the Nation and treats the doctrinal and pastoral questions as are significant for the entire Catholic community of the country'. Sadly, we very regularly hear of difficult situations regarding the ordination of Bishops - this is continuing right up to this present time and, no doubt, you have read or heard of instances which do cause very great distress. We have only to think of the tensions at this present time with regard to the recently ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai, who on indicating his resignation from the Catholic Patriotic Association at the end of his Ordination Mass just last week, seems to have ‘disappeared' and it is considered that he is being held as some sort of prisoner in a seminary in Sheshan on the outskirts of Shanghai. Obviously, these tensions are ongoing and are among the situations which the Pope described as giving 'cause for concern'.
However, at this present time I think we must be more than positive about what has already been achieved in China in various ways, without simply concentrating on major difficulties.
I do think that very often the present Columban Fathers and Columban Sisters must look back to the words of their Founder, Fr Edward Galvin, who wrote: 'You are not here to convert the Chinese; you are here to make yourself available to God'. And that is what the present generation of missionaries do at this present time. As another early Columban Bishop once stated on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Columban Fathers: 'The harvest that was garnered was immense and the good seed remains in the ground for a second spring.'
We might say that the good seed is indeed still there and I think with great confidence of those words in St Mark's Gospel, Chapter 4, when Jesus said of the seed thrown on the land: 'Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing: how he does not know!' And that indeed is what is happening at this present time.
We acknowledge that regular visits take place between the peoples of our different countries; there is increasing knowledge of the situations in China through visitors to that great country and also the reverse particularly with the regular influx of students from China into our universities and colleges.
Religious males and females are able to come to our country learning more of social skills and medical skills, as well as how to cope with the poverty and the increasing incidence of HIV and AIDS. And, of course, many of us are connected with that wonderful flourishing of religious life in China, with the recent first professions at the contemplative monastery of the Sisters of St Augustine, with the ceremonies led by an 88 year old Bishop, who was ordained a bishop at the age of 76. He indicated at the first profession of one of the Sisters: 'Today in our Church of our Province, a new flavour is definitely being added - that of contemplative life'. That particular bishop has spent 20 years in prison and 10 in solitary confinement - but he was delighted at the new development in his diocese and the fact that the contemplative life was again being restored in his country.
There are indeed problems still to be overcome and I see this particularly with regard to those members of the underground Church, the unregistered Church - where members might easily see themselves as having suffered for the Church and still suffering for the Church while it almost might seem to them as if things are made easier for those who are now willing to be registered by the State while still in union with Rome. Much diplomacy and indeed much prayer is needed to bring about the unity desired by all. And the Pope stressed on difficulties when he did indicate, as I have previously said, that: 'There are some important aspects of the ecclesial life of your country which gives cause for concern.'
Following on my relatively short visit to China, and that in the rich East as I have stated already, I hesitate to offer any one conclusion.
However I look back to those words of Pope Benedict XVI when he used the words of Jesus to his first Apostles: 'Launch out into the deep' and he said: 'These words ring out for us today, and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, to look at the present with enthusiasm, and to look forward to the future with confidence'.
During my own short visit I was able to thank God for that wonderful past; I witnessed the enthusiasm of the people of God in China for myself as a Cardinal and for Pope Benedict XVI. And I became aware of the sterling work being done to prepare the thousands who were seeking baptism each year. I was introduced to the social gospel contributing so much to the poor, people with AIDS and lepers. Despite the hurdles that have to be got over, with all in China and with friends of China throughout the world, I look forward to the future with confidence remembering the call of the Pope for the Catholics of the whole world to be united in prayer with the Church which is in China. Let us never forget that call from the Pope to pray especially for the Church in China on 24th May, the day 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, a shrine in which I myself was privileged to visit and to lead the people gathered in prayer there. On that occasion, I met one of the Chinese Sisters who had come to Edinburgh and then on to Dublin for formation in religious life and who greeted me in the strongest Scottish accent I have ever heard!
I want to finish on a note of optimism. While realising some major difficulties which certainly do exist with regard to Church life in China, we must also realise that the seed, once planted by those first wonderful Columban missionaries to China, following on the establishment of the Maynooth Mission to China in 1918 and continuing right down to this present time, is indeed continuing to grow in so many varied ways. For us, it is often that, in doing little things, such as I have mentioned, we will show our own fraternal solidarity and solicitude for the peoples of China, helping them to be evermore close to Jesus Christ and to his Vicar on earth.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien gave the above homily on 21 July 2012 at the annual conference of the National Justice and Peace Network of England and Wales, which was held in Swanwick, Derbyshire.