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from issue no. 12 - 2011

With one’s heart at peace

An interview with Joseph Han Zhi-hai, a bishop in China who does not have the recognition of the government in Beijing: "I come from a family that has known Jesus for four hundred years. My father and my mother baptized me eight days after my birth. They knew that the Church asks parents to baptize their children as soon as they can”

Interview with Joseph Han Zhi-hai by Gianni Valente

Lanzhou is one of the most polluted cities in the world. On some days, in the provincial capital of China’s northwest Gansu Province, the smog is so dense that one can’t even see Lanshan mountain that stands a few kilometers to the south. Instead the view of Joseph Han Zhi-hai, forty-six year old Archbishop of the metropolis on the Yellow River, continues to be clear and sharp even when he focuses on the delicate and troublesome passage that Chinese Catholicism is experiencing.

Han was ordained bishop in 2003. The local and national political officials have not yet officially recognized his episcopal ordination. But his status as a successor of the apostles lacking government ‘certification’ does not prevent him working nor witnessing to the freedom of those who walk with heart at peace in the same faith of the apostles. He says of himself: “I come from a family that has known Jesus for four hundred years. My father and mother baptized me eight days after my birth. They knew that the Church asks parents to baptize their children as soon as they can”.


Joseph Han Zhi-hai during a baptism

Joseph Han Zhi-hai during a baptism

You were born in 1966. China was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. What are your memories of your childhood years?

JOSEPH HAN ZHI-HAI: We lived in a village two hundred kilometers from Lanzhou. It was not a Catholic village, but the persecution arrived even there. During that time my parents and relatives kept their faith in their heart, without showing it in public, not even by simply going to church. They couldn’t do otherwise. Fortunately, our house was a little away from the others. For us it was easier to continue to pray together. My grandfather never ceased to recite prayers in the family. So he kept us in the faith.

Then, growing up, who were the other important people you met along the way?

Certainly Father Philip, who would then in 1981 become bishop of Lanzhou and was to ordain me priest. He was freed in 1978 after thirty years of imprisonment and isolation, and from that day, as soon as he regained his freedom, without a single word of complaint he began preaching the gospel round the villages and countryside. He went around all the time visiting the Christians in the region, house by house, to say mass and pray with them and comfort them all. I was a young student at the time. Watching him, the desire was born in me to become a priest. But then there was no seminary. We went around seeking the few old manuals and theology and doctrine texts that had survived the destruction. We studied with what little we could find. Then the government allowed us to rebuild the churches. So the families came together to build their own chapels and parishes. And thus faith blossomed once again.

Comparing that period to the present, what has changed in the lives of ordinary Catholics?

Today I see a lot of openness, there is more freedom compared to then. In our community there is still a lot of faith but in young people we also see a weakness in some way linked to the new materialism marking society. The risk of drifting away is linked more to the consumerism and materialism of modern life than difficulties in relations with the government.

And how do you work with young people and children?

We work primarily with students in the years prior to university. We set up study classes during the summer and during the New Year holidays. But what matters is one-to-one relations between individuals rather than collective efforts.

How and when did you become a priest?

It was in 1994. There were five of us that time ordained priest by Bishop Philip. None of us had attended the seminaries reopened in China under government control. I received the fundamental lessons from a layman who knew theology.

Then, some years after the death of Philip, you yourself became a bishop. But you were ordained without getting approval and permits from the government apparatus.

It was January 2003. I had been aware for some time that the division between bishops and ‘official’ and ‘underground’ communities in China made no sense. The majority of the bishops elected in accordance with the government procedures had been legitimized by the Holy See and were also in communion with the Pope. So the old indications circulating in the Church warning against joint Eucharistic celebrations with priests and bishops who agreed to cooperate with the government to me seemed outdated and to be put away.

And then, you didn’t keep those thoughts to yourself ...

A few months after my ordination I wrote an open letter to invite all my brother bishops to heal the laceration among Chinese Catholics. The simplest thing to do was to confess with serenity and courage their communion in faith with the Pope. That would get rid of futile misunderstandings and harmful suspicions.

Things haven’t changed much today from the opening of the division.

In my opinion, to see the facts as they really are, we must make distinctions. The vast majority of bishops ordained according to government protocol are in communion with Rome, now more than ever. Nobody really wants to make a Chinese Church separate from the universal Church. The pressures are part of the political situation in which we find ourselves.

The city of Lanzhou, crossed by the Yellow River [© Corbis]

The city of Lanzhou, crossed by the Yellow River [© Corbis]

Is that why the division continues?

Within the clandestine community there are extremist groups that will not accept any challenge and condemn the others. Even among those who are registered with the structures of the religious policy of the government there are some who are heading along the wrong path. But I’m sure that the vast majority want and are awaiting full public and visible communion of all those who belong to the Catholic Church of China.

What is the best way of responding to the government claims?

I have taken advantage of the new spaces that have opened up. If I avoid conflict with the government, I can devote more energy and take advantage of more opportunities to preach the gospel to more people. That is why, in my opinion, the bishops should, where possible, leave the so-called underground condition, take account of the current situation and take a stance of debate and not conflict with the government.

What is the most serious effect of the division among Catholics?

The failure to share the Eucharist, accusing one another. Because if we profess the same faith, only communicating in the same chalice of the Body and Blood of Our Lord can revive unity and communion. The Eucharist is the source of this unity. If this sacramental source is lacking, unity cannot be reborn out of human reasoning nor out of appeals and indications coming from the outside.

Not even those that come from the Vatican?

Sometimes it seems that there are those who think that we here in China do not heed and do not follow Jesus. That is wrong. One must start from the fact that the Church of Christ is already here in China. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, as we profess in the Creed. Our community can flourish only if Jesus himself nourishes and holds together His Church here in China with His sacraments, preserving in it the faith of the Apostles. Part of this faith is communion with the Successor of Peter and obedience to his ministry, as was intended by Jesus. Otherwise, if that were not the case, if here in China there were not the Catholic faith between people and their pastors, it would be futile to make speeches or make disciplinary dispositions on these things.

That recognition inspired the view on the Church in China, expressed in the Letter Benedict XVI sent in 2007 to all Chinese Catholics. Didn’t that pronouncement of the Pope respond in clear fashion also to the questions you posed in your open letter of four years before?

The Pope’s Letter was a response to many important problems facing the Church in China. We read it with emotion, many had not expected so clear a letter and were surprised. But with the passage of time some people have added something else, other comments, partial interpretations have been offered purposely. And so, at least in part, that pronouncement has lost its force.

It’s said that some local political authorities blocked the circulation of that Letter.

In some regions there have been prohibitions, but they didn’t in fact work. The Letter circulated just the same. Whereas, in some provinces such as Fujian and Hebei, the Letter was received by some ecclesial communities with a certain reserve.

The publication of the Pope’s Letter was followed by a phase in which a larger number of bishops were ordained, recognized in parallel by the Holy See and the civil authorities in China. What do you think of this modus procedendi, experimented particularly in 2009 and 2010?

The government is going on with its policy. It wants to maintain some control over procedures for the appointment of bishops. In my opinion, if they approve the ordination of bishops who also have the apostolic mandate of the Pope, it would be the best way of proceeding. If the candidates selected are worthy and show themselves conscious of the responsibilities they are called to, we should avoid unnecessary objections and complications.

The fact is that the phase of the ordinations with ‘tacit parallel consent’ broke off when the civil powers imposed three illicit episcopal ordinations. The illicit bishops received excommunication, also made known by the Holy See. How do you view this situation?

If someone lets himself be ordained bishop knowing that the Holy See is contrary to his ordination, it is inevitable that canonical penalties apply. But we must always evaluate the circumstances case by case. Bearing in mind the particular situation in which we find ourselves, and the pressures that weigh on Chinese bishops.

Faithful during Christmas Mass at a church in Beijing [© Getty Images]

Faithful during Christmas Mass at a church in Beijing [© Getty Images]

After those events, suspicion has again fallen on all the bishops who agree to act in accordance with the religious policy of the government.

It must be said first of all that here in China we are in communion with the Bishop of Rome. We too are Catholic bishops, and we know what all this means. But being Catholic bishops in China, we live in this country, where there is a government that has a certain policy. At present, if you set yourself apart from that policy, the consequences are not as severe as before. But everything becomes more difficult: you enter a situation of conflict that makes the ordinary life of the Church and normal pastoral work more difficult. We must take this into account, precisely because of the task we have.

How do you show in practice you communion with the successor of Peter?

When I collaborate with the government I always openly and forcefully repeat that our communion with the Pope is essential for us Catholics. Our catholicity depends on it. But I must also say that they accept this. Or at least they have no objections to it. They follow their own policy, the political aspect is what interests them. The things that are crucial for us, such as fidelity to the Pope as guardian of Tradition, don’t seem to interest them much.

The fact remains that you are still in the position of ‘unofficial’ bishop, not recognized as a bishop by the government apparatus. Is something being worked out for you?

There is no other ‘official’ bishop approved by the government in Lanzhou. The government has been telling me for some time that soon they will recognize me as bishop of the diocese, but no specific date for this has yet been set.

If it happens do you fear there will be misunderstandings and bad feelings in the Church community?

We are all united on this. All share the same thought. Everybody sees that recognition by the government does not contradict and does not hinder communion with the Pope and the Universal Church.

At that point you should have contact with the Patriotic Association, the inspection body set up by the regime. What shape would you give to relations with the PA?

Currently the head of the PA is still a layman. In future that role could be taken by one of the priests of the diocese, so as to handle everything in friendly fashion.

What would you say to the Pope to clarify the situation in China?

It’s a moment of confusion. It can’t continue like this. It would be useful to bear in mind two things for the future. First, we want to be in communion with the Pope, we want to be one heart with him. And then that clarity is needed in indicating what is wrong and must be corrected, among the anomalies of the circumstances in which we live. But in doing so, we must never lose contact. The channels that serve to keep us talking must be kept open. Because there are situations that can be solved only by debate.

You might well meet the Pope soon, when you’re summoned to Rome for the Synod of Bishops.

I’d be happy. But I don’t think I’ll mange to come...

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