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from issue no. 12 - 2011

Letter to friends, nine years later

by Gianni Valente

Joseph Han Zhi-hai, Archbishop of Lanzhou

Joseph Han Zhi-hai, Archbishop of Lanzhou


Joseph Han Zhi-hai was 37 years old and had been bishop only a few months when in the summer of 2003, he wrote an “Open Letter to friends” which is still a valuable document for an understanding of current Chinese Catholicism. In that letter the young bishop recounted an important shift he had gone through in previous years with some of his contemporaries, all priests ordained outside of bodies and control procedures imposed on the ecclesial community.

For a long time Han and his friends had continued to be wary of the bishops, priests and lay Catholics who, unlike them, agreed to cooperate with the Patriotic Association (the key tool of the regime’s religious policy). The suspicion remained with them that the bishops ordained with the placet of the government, and often without that of the Apostolic See, nourished the idea to “provoke a schism in our Church, creating a Catholic Church independent of the universal Church and the Pope”. For that reason Han and his friends had refused to join in their Eucharistic celebrations and urged Catholic faithful to do the same. A painful division but one that seemed inevitable if the desire was to “protect the unity of our Church with the universal Church and with the Holy Father”. But then they had gradually discovered that many of the ‘official’ bishops, though appointed according to the procedures imposed by the Chinese government, had also been legitimized by the Pope and had received from him the apostolic mandate. It emerged ever more sharply that “the majority of official bishops are already now in union with the Pope and the universal Church”.

In those circumstances, Bishop Han realized that the sacramental apartheid then practiced within Chinese Catholicism itself helped divisions and enmities fester, making appeals for reconciliation barren: “We are still divided into an official community and an unofficial community that celebrate the Eucharist separately”, Han wrote in his letter, “when the Eucharist is precisely the moment in which unity is made and celebrated... It is the Eucharist that nourishes unity”.

So then Han saw that the hesitation of many to take concrete steps on the path of reconciliation lay in the stumbling-block of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, “which is ambiguous when it comes to unity with the Holy See, a reality that is, instead, essential for us”. Even today, the role played in ecclesial life by the ‘patriotic’ apparatus – up to the claim to be in charge of episcopal appointments – is for various reasons a problem to be solved.

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