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from issue no. 10 - 2008


Awaiting Matteo Ricci

by Gianni Valente

Matteo Ricci

Matteo Ricci

In late October, at the end of the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God, one of the periodic meetings of the commission charged by Benedict XVI to study the conditions of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China took place in Rome. The participants – the China watchers in the Vatican departments, plus the heads of the Churches of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao, including Cardinal Joseph Zen – took note of the impasse in the process of normalization of relations between the Holy See, the Beijing government and the Chinese Church. Among the recent ambivalent signals was the non-participation of the bishops of the People’s Republic at the last Synod. What made against the possibility was mainly insistence on the Chinese side that Joseph Ma Yinglin, the Bishop of Kunming consecrated in 2006 without apostolic mandate, be included in any delegation of bishops from mainland China. The illicit ordination of Bishop Ma Yinglin provoked the latest moment of serious tension in relations between the Holy See and the Chinese government, before the Pope’s Letter to Chinese Catholics in June 2007. And recent evidence suggests that there are those in the Chinese establishment who aim at making precisely Ma Yinglin the new leader of the Church in China, investing him with the role of authorized interlocutor of the government. One of the sponsors of the operation is certainly the layman Anthony Liu Bainian, vice-president of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, a figure who has historically played a key role in the organs of political control that make pretensions to guide the life of the community even in its most inward ecclesial aspects. The drag is in part caused by what is know as the limpet-effect of the “patriotic” organizations engaged in perpetuating their own existence. The Holy See, not least through the Apostolic Letter signed by the Pope, has made it clear in every way that it prefers direct dialogue without interference with State and Party organs. The problems are being created by the hybrid nature of the Patriotic Association, which claims to lead the Church “from within”, as guarantor of the “democratic” requirements that are also supposed to shape ecclesial dynamics. But the political leadership plans for the future of these bodies remain barely decipherable. In early January, the photo of a cordial handshake between President Hu Jintao and Liu Bainian, published on the front page of the People’s Daily, was interpreted by observers as a sign of the political standing which the vice-president of the Patriotic Association still enjoys.
Meanwhile, in confirmation of the impasse, all procedures in recent months for the appointment of new bishops seem to have slowed down (although Don Paul Meng Ningyou could be ordained as coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Taiyuan before Christmas). Also behind schedule is the convening of the next Conference of Catholic representatives, the assembly of delegates of the dioceses registered with the State Administration of Religious Affairs, which meets periodically to distribute posts in the official bodies of the Chinese Church, including the College of Bishops (a body not recognized by the Holy See that includes all the Chinese bishops approved by the government). Liu Bainian would like to elect the controversial Ma Yinglin as president of the Chinese Bishops. But everyone knows that the felt sensus fidei of the Chinese Catholics – bishops, priests, religious and laity – would not accept the leadership of a bishop consecrated without apostolic mandate. And precisely the on-going political maneuvering around Ma Yinglin is hampering the possibility that his request for recognition by the Holy See will gain quick acceptance.
In this phase of uncertainty individual and group initiatives are finding room and may provide new departure points and opportunities for open dialogue between China and the Holy See. The Mass in Italian celebrated by a Chinese priest on 26 October in Shanghai Cathedral, on the initiative of the local Italian community, with the contribution of a Shanghai choir who also sang such popular Marian hymns as Mira il tuo popolo was such an initiative. Another was the academic conference on religions in the contemporary world, held in Beijing from 14-17 October, where members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences debated in full freedom with Italian scholars from the University of Macerata and the Catholic University of Milan. The conference – which was attended by the Bishop of Macerata, Claudio Giuliodori – also provided an opportunity for an exchange of views on initiatives in the pipeline for the four hundredth anniversary of the death of Matteo Ricci. The anniversary of the dies natalis of the great Jesuit missionary, who died in 1610, will again provide the Apostolic See with the occasion to reiterate that “also the Catholic Church of today is not asking China and its political authorities for any privilege, but only to resume dialogue, to reach a relationship of mutual respect and deeper knowledge” (John Paul II, in his message to the conference on “Matteo Ricci: for dialogue between China and the West”, 24 October 2001).

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