Ten years on from the naming by Pope Benedict XVI of the feast day of Our Lady Help of Christians on 24 May as a World Day of Prayer for the Church in China, Pope Francis asked people to pray for Chinese Catholics so that they may be able to live their faith in full communion with the Pope.
At the end of his general audience in St Peter’s Square on 23 May, Pope Francis said the feast day “invites us to be united spiritually with all the Catholic faithful who live in China”.
He asked people pray to Our Lady so that Catholics there would be able “to live the faith with generosity and serenity” and so that they would know how to carry out “concrete gestures of fraternity, harmony and reconciliation, in full communion with the successor of Peter.”
“Dear disciples of the Lord in China, the universal church prays with you and for you so that even in the midst of difficulties you may continue to trust in God’s will,” he said.
The tenth anniversary comes at a critical time for the Church in China. Closed-door negotiations have been continuing for many months between the Vatican and Beijing, that the Vatican hopes will bring together the unofficial or underground Church, whose first loyalty is to Rome, and the Patriotic Church, that is answerable in the first instance to the communist government in Beijing.
The most sensitive issue in the negotiations is to do with who has final authority over the appointment of bishops, and one possibility that has leaked from the discussions is for Beijing to name three possible bishops, from which the Pope would choose one. The many critics of this option include the former bishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen who says it would give too much say, and thereby control, over the Church, to Beijing.
It has also been reported that two loyal “underground” bishops have been asked to stand aside for government-appointed bishops, and again there has been resistance to this proposal.
Complicating the situation further are the draconian measures towards central control of all religions in China that have been introduced by the communist government.
Since 1 February, all religions in China have been bound by the new Regulations for Religious Affairs, which stipulate criteria that religious organisations have to meet in order to be registered or to establish a place for religious activities. Religious affairs departments of local governments are given the power to decide the fate of the registration application, as well as the authorisation of venues as places of worship. The regulations also require religious teachers and staff members to report to the same authorities.
Moreover, Article 47 of the regulations states that any online engagement in religious information services must be examined and approved by the authorities, while the new regulations also define the collection of donations.
Meanwhile, the director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Ying Fuk-tsang, has urged religious believers “to become more aware of how to defend their rights” in order to meet the challenges imposed by the new regulations. Article 57 allows religious groups and institutions to accept donations at home and abroad for religious activities. However, when donations amount to more than 100,000 yuan (around $15,900), they must be submitted for examination and approval to the religious affairs departments.
Pope Benedict XVI’s prayer to Our Lady of Sheshan for the World Day of Prayer for the Catholic Church in China
Virgin Most Holy, Mother of the Incarnate Word and our Mother, venerated in the Shrine of Sheshan under the title "Help of Christians", the entire Church in China looks to you with devout affection. We come before you today to implore your protection. Look upon the People of God and, with a mother’s care, guide them along the paths of truth and love, so that they may always be a leaven of harmonious coexistence among all citizens.
When you obediently said "yes" in the house of Nazareth, you allowed God’s eternal Son to take flesh in your virginal womb and thus to begin in history the work of our redemption. You willingly and generously cooperated in that work, allowing the sword of pain to pierce your soul, until the supreme hour of the Cross, when you kept watch on Calvary, standing beside your Son, who died that we might live.
From that moment, you became, in a new way, the Mother of all those who receive your Son Jesus in faith and choose to follow in his footsteps by taking up his Cross. Mother of hope, in the darkness of Holy Saturday you journeyed with unfailing trust towards the dawn of Easter. Grant that your children may discern at all times, even those that are darkest, the signs of God’s loving presence.
Our Lady of Sheshan, sustain all those in China, who, amid their daily trials, continue to believe, to hope, to love. May they never be afraid to speak of Jesus to the world, and of the world to Jesus. In the statue overlooking the Shrine you lift your Son on high, offering him to the world with open arms in a gesture of love. Help Catholics always to be credible witnesses to this love, ever clinging to the rock of Peter on which the Church is built. Mother of China and all Asia, pray for us, now and for ever. Amen!
Pope Benedict XVI's message to the Church in China on 27 May 2007
"Dear Pastors and all the faithful, the date 24th May 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. I would like that date to be kept by you as a day of prayer for the Church in China. I encourage you to celebrate it by renewing your communion of faith in Jesus our Lord and of faithfulness to the Pope, and by praying that the unity among you may become ever deeper and more visible…On that same day, the Catholics of the whole world – in particular those who are of Chinese origin – will demonstrate their fraternal solidarity and solicitude for you, asking the Lord of history for the gift of perseverance in witness, in the certainty that your sufferings past and present for the Holy Name of Jesus and your intrepid loyalty to his Vicar on earth will be rewarded, even if at times everything can seem a failure."