my Oct. 29 column, I reported with much joy that
something was changing in the diplomatic world – the possibility of China
sending its ambassador to the Vatican and the Vatican responding with its
apostolic nuncio; in other words, the opening of diplomatic relations between
The announcements by the two governments were sparse on details, and for the moment this agreement is provisional. Hong Lei, diplomat of the People’s Republic of China and former spokesperson for its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: “China was willing to develop relations with the Vatican if it severs its diplomatic ties with Taiwan and refrains from interfering in China’s internal affairs, particularly interfering in the name of religion.”
Pope Francis, on his return from his recent trip to the Baltics, said an agreement was signed with China and he, not the Beijing government, will have “the final say” on the appointment of bishops.
The Chinese Communist Party has always sought to restrict religious activity. For the first three decades of communist rule it tried to eradicate it violently. But after the death of Mao and in the period of reform over the past 40 years, the policy was one of control rather than outright repression, and there were periods of relaxation in some parts of the country.
However, since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013 he has pursued a severe crackdown on human rights including religious freedom. Last year he launched a campaign to “sinicize” religion. In March this year, it was announced that religious affairs would now be overseen by the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department. In a one-party state the distinction between government and party may seem academic, but this move is a clear signal that Xi regards the repression of religion as part of an ideological battle.
Given the pace of growth in Christianity in China, the crackdown is a sign of the Communist Party’s insecurity about its own survival. If Ian Johnson, author of The Soul of China: the Return of Religion after Mao, is correct, the Catholic population is roughly 10 million. The vast majority of Chinese Christians are Protestant, and Johnson estimates there are potentially as many as 400 million adherents of some form of religious belief.
In the last century, Chinese Catholicism has often been an imitation of Christ and many heroes of the faith have ended up martyred. Scholars have done remarkable work to bring these figures to light.
Mao’s victory in 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic ensured that persecution would grow. Bishop Ignatius Kung, the great bishop of Shanghai, wrote a pastoral letter to his diocese calling for intense evangelization and new devotion to the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament, and the Rosary. His plan was to strengthen the faith for the coming trials. Bishop Kung himself was sent to prison from 1955 to 1985.
The leader of Shanghai’s youth organization, Father Beda Chang, SJ, an experienced educator and skilled negotiator, resisted when the Communist Party insisted Chinese Catholics break communion with Rome. They put him in prison where he was deprived of food and sleep and brutally interrogated. Months later, he was dead. This alarmed the regime which felt threatened by any gathering of people or idea that could rival the Communist Party.
Persecution reached its height during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, 1966 to 1976, when traditional customs, culture, habits, and ideas were attacked and Catholics were targeted. Churches were demolished or taken over, and statues and vestments were destroyed. Ordinary believers were driven from their homes and forced to walk the streets with tall cylindrical hats on which their “crimes” were written. They were then sent to live in miserable dwellings or huts, while their homes were plundered.
After Mao’s death in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping’s eventual rise to leadership, Catholics could breathe more easily. The 1982 constitution even affirmed freedom of religion, but the Catholic experience since then has been mixed, to say the least. As recently as 2015, a 94-year-old bishop of the underground Church reportedly died in prison.
Christians continue to make it clear that they will not take the increased repression lying down. Last month, 279 Protestant pastors issued a joint declaration describing the persecution as “unprecedented since the end of the Cultural Revolution.”
They said they would not accept being banned or fined. “Under no circumstances will we lead our churches to join a religious organization controlled by the government, to register with the religious department, or to accept any kind of affiliation,” they wrote. “For the sake of the Gospel, we are prepared to bear all losses, even the loss of our freedom and our lives.”
The provisional agreement between Beijing and the Vatican is the rainbow and the hope of the Catholic Church.
I wish to clarify some errors in my Oct. 22 column about the challenges facing retired priests.
First, I mentioned it is sad to see retired priests either not invited to clergy study weeks or being required to pay. I proposed they and permanent deacons be invited to the annual retreat for half price. In fact, retired priests do get invited to study weeks and annual retreats at half price. Meanwhile, permanent deacons pay nothing for the retreat, since it is part of their continuing education. (They are not invited to study weeks, which are directed toward priests, not deacons.
I also recommended having a special Retired Priests Day and collection, overlooking the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s annual collection for the St. Joseph’s Society, which meets the need of retired priests.