The Church in China needs heroes. The heroes in China need prayers.
Several times during his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has issued a special call for prayers for the Church in China. A quick look at today’s top CWN headline should help readers understand the Holy Father’s pleas.
Just to refresh your memory:
- In May, a petition for the unity of the Church in China was one of the Pope’s monthly prayer intentions.
- The Pope designated May 24 as a special day of prayer for the Church in China, and during his regular public audience the week before that date, he reminded the faithful that the Catholics of China “have a right to our prayers; they need our prayers.”
- Earlier, in April, a gathering of prelates in Rome, dedicated to the problems facing Chinese Catholicism, had ended with a a plea to the Chinese bishops to be courageous in upholding Church unity.
- Then the secretary of the Congregation for Evangelization—a native of Hong Kong-- issued a more specific message, encouraging Chinese clerics to be bold, even heroic, in resisting pressure from the government to participate in the illicit ordination of government-approved bishops.
Taken all together, those statements reveal that Vatican officials have been worried about the steps the Chinese government and the government-backed Catholic Patriotic Association might take to fracture the unity of the Church in that country. Presumably the Vatican was hearing rumors, and picking up signals from Beijing. This month the threat became explicit, when Chinese officials boldly announced that they planned to ordain many new bishops--potentially up to 40—without the approval of the Holy See. How can the Patriotic Association dare to defy Rome on this massive scale, when the penalty for participating in an illicit episcopal ordination is excommunication? As we look for an answer to that question we should keep two considerations in mind:
- The Chinese government controls the flow of information. Most Chinese Catholics probably have received very little accurate information, and quite a bit of disinformation, about the struggle within their Church.
- Most people, quite naturally, long for ordinary life—not constant conflict, not epic struggles and heroic gestures, but peace and quiet.
The Patriotic Association has done its best to persuade Chinese Catholics that accepting its leadership—and relinquishing ties to Rome—is the only way to enjoy “ordinary” life in the Church. Accept the bishops selected by the Patriotic Association, and life will be simple for the faithful of the “official” Catholic Church. Let the diehards of the “underground” Church suffer by themselves; ordinary Catholics can have an ordinary life, with the government’s approval. These are seductive promises.
The bishop who was ordained today in the Leshan diocese offered what looks at first glance like a very plausible explanation for his willingness to defy the Vatican. He had asked for the Vatican’s approval, he said, and waited patiently for a response. But when no answer came, he took action because “we have to consider the Church’s survival.”
Yes, the Church needs leaders. Without bishops there will eventually be no priests; without priests there will eventually be no sacraments. The faithful need the sacraments, and so they need for bishops to be ordained. That logic is compelling.
What Bishop Lei Shiyin did not disclose, however, is that the Patriotic Association is maneuvering to ensure that only bishops who accept its authority will be ordained. Earlier this week, when another would-be bishop quietly obtained Vatican approval, his episcopal ordination was abruptly cancelled and he was placed under arrest. The message seemed clear enough: accept the bishops who will recognize the authority of the government, or there will be no new bishops at all. The Patriotic Association is threatening to choke off the sacramental life of the Church in China, hoping that eventually the faithful will be desperate enough to accept leadership from Beijing rather than from Rome.
From where we sit in comfort, thousands of miles away, it is easy to say that the Chinese faithful should stand firm, refuse to compromise their principles, reject the pretenses of the Patriotic Association, and remain steadfastly loyal to Rome. And indeed they should. But to do so will entail suffering; it may require heroism.
When we ask Chinese Catholics to stand firm, we are asking them to do something extraordinary for the welfare of the universal Church. So it is only fair and reasonable that we, too, should be willing to do something extraordinary to support them. We are sending them into spiritual combat; we should supply them with spiritual weapons. As Pope Benedict said just a few weeks ago, the faithful in China not only need our prayers; they have a right to them.
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