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from issue no. 09 - 2006

The policy of fait accompli

Eliminating the Vatican regulations that hinder reconciliation in the Chinese Church. Seeking a tacit and provisional modus vivendi on the procedures for the selection of bishops. Creating a new role for the Patriotic Association. An interview with Jeroom Heyndrickx, missionary and Sinologist

Interview with Jeroom Heyndrickx by Gianni Valente

At the beginning of September, friends of the Chinese Catholic Church throughout the world – members of institutes and missionary congregations, scholars, directors of foundations and study-centers, priests and lay people who for the most diverse reasons and in the most various ways follow the controversial vicissitudes of Chinese Catholics – gathered in the Villa Sacro Cuore in Triuggio, in Brianza, to participate in the seventh “Euopean Catholic China Colloquium” organized this time by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME). Among the European Catholic “Sinologists” of long standing called on to confront the demanding subject of the conference (“25 years of encounter with the Chinese Church: a balance sheet, looking to the future”), the most “celebrated” – not least because of his recent priestly jubilee, for which he received congratulations from Queen Paola of Belgium also – was certainly him: the seventy-five year-old Jeroom Heyndrickx, a priest of the Missionary Congregation of Scheut, president of the Verbiest Foundation of Louvain, a long life as missionary and scholar marked by a passion for the shoots of Christian life sprouting on the far side of the Great Wall. There is not a more obvious person than he to describe, without the prevailing clichés, the delicate moment that relations between the Beijing government, the Chinese Church and the Holy See are undergoing.

Faithful in prayer outside the Xishiku Catholic church in Beijing

Faithful in prayer outside the Xishiku Catholic church in Beijing

Father Jeroom, are the pople right who say that the situation of the Church in China is always the same?
JEROOM HEYNDRICKX: Much has changed. Not perhaps in the theoretical debate about freedom of worship, and not in terms of the official statutes, but on the level of facts. If you go to China today, you see that in the great majority of situations it’s possible for the ordinary faithful to go to mass, receive the sacraments, pray, take part in catechesis in the parish, in short to exercise all the ordinary practices of Christian life, with no great problem. In Beijing also, at the center of state power, if you go to the Cathedral on any weekday, you’ll find three masses in the early morning, and at least a hundred faithful attending every mass. I don’t know in how many European cathedrals or in how many churches in Rome you will see masses so well celebrated every day, with sermon and hymns.
And yet there is still talk of churches being wrecked, bishops and priests subjected to police methods…
HEYNDRICKX: Sometimes local governments use Cultural Revolution methods, a legacy from the Maoist era, that also contradict the policy of religious freedom proclaimed by word of the central government. But it must be said that almost all the information about the Chinese Church is twisted by underlying equivocations and prejudices. I get upset when I hear it said that there are two Churches in China, one orthodox, faithful to the Pope and one “patriotic”, allegedly a creature of the government. In the early’eighties, after the Cultural Revolution, there might still have been a suspicion that in China someone, under pressure from the government, indeed did want to create a national Church separated from the Pope and the rest of the universal Church. But it was an unfounded suspicion even then. The data acquired in these twenty-five years have shown that it was the very sensus fidei of the Chinese Catholics themselves that resisted, perhaps silently, every attempt to separate them from the Pope. On the death of John Paul II all the communities, both those registered and those not recognized by the government, prayed and celebrated masses for the repose of his soul for days and days and then in thanksgiving for the election of the new Pope.
Some news comes as a surprize. The “underground” auxiliary bishop of Baoding, Francis An, reappeared at liberty after years when all trace of him had been lost, but it is said that his segregation was also due to conflicts with some of the priests of his “non official” community.
HEYNDRICKX: In China there is only one Church, even if divided, at times in painful fashion. Among the internal conflicts and problems of the Church, situations that are often more tangled than they look from the outside are also involved.
And yet on the most controversial point of the anomalous condition of the Chinese Church, that of the nomination of bishops, important new developments were recently reported.
HEYNDRICKX: In the last years of the pontificate of John Paul II, for the first time since the Mao period, some ordinations of new bishops were celebrated with the convergent approval of both the Beijing government and of the Holy See, both in the public domain. Then Benedict XVI arrived, and that path was continued upon. The names of candidates were sent to Rome, the chosen one was nominated by the Pope, the government knew this, and allowed this to happen. This model prefigured a type of de facto normalization of the procedures on this point. Even if the matter was not emphasized, it was an epochal turning point.
HEYNDRICKX: In the event, even if it not officially and publicly admitted, the Chinese Peoples’ Republic accepted for the first time, or at least did not oppose, the practical realization of the principle according to which, in the Catholic Church, it is the Pope who nominates bishops. The whole history of the Chinese Church can be seen as a progressive resolution of anomalies that occurs first on the factual level, without any immediate recognition in terms of rules and formal procedures. This course was taken when, in the early ’eighties, a bishop who was elected in an illegitimate manner turned to the Holy See to gain legitimization. The government threatened to punish him, but then didn’t do so, and thus his example was followed in the ’eighties and ’nineties by dozens and dozens of other bishops…
Jeroom Heyndrickx

Jeroom Heyndrickx

Down to the cases cited, where, with a step forward, already before consecration, everybody knew that the bishops were nominated by Rome.
HEYNDRICKX: It was as if, without pre-arrangement, a tacit agreement had come about between the government and the Holy See: carry on your way, we in any case will carry on in ours. We will begin to introduce a generation of new bishops who have the pontifical nomination and at the same time are elected in respect of the procedures approved by the government, and then we’ll see how to adjust things at the formal level.
Then, however, came the cold Spring shower …
HEYNDRICKX: First there was a much publicized quarrel between the bishop of Hong Kong Joseph Zen, recently become cardinal, and Anthony Liu Bainian, the vice-president of the Patriotic Association. The Holy See kept out of this clash, and the Chinese authorities also remained quiet. But shortly afterwards, between the end of April and the beginning of May, came the illegitimate consecrations of two bishops, ordained without apostolic mandate.
You have explained that even these two illegitimately consecrated bishops were about to receive the pontifical nomination.
HEYNDRICKX: The names of these two bishops had been sent to Rome a long time beforehand, along with those of candidates for the head of other dioceses. A certain consensus on their candidacy for the episcopate had been noted in their respective communities of origin. Other bishops and priests had also sent their positive opinions to Rome. The pontifical nomination was awaited but the procedures in Rome took longer than expected. And the two ordinations, after the clash between Zen and Liu Bainian, was the spark that lit the fire. The request for a postponement was rejected. To convince the bishops to participate in the consecrations, a false rumor was circulated according to which the Pope had “tacitly approved” the ordinations.
What will happen now?
HEYNDRICKX: The coming months are crucial. There are forty dioceses vacant or with old bishops, the replies from Rome to many cases should shortly arrive. There are no official channels to deal with all this, the parties are mutually suspicious, there could be other situations of conflict. But just after the two illegitimate ordinations, when everything again seemed compromised, the Pope sent two diplomats to Beijing, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli and Monsignor Gianfranco Rota Graziosi, who know the situation of the Church in China well, to have direct talks. It is an unequivocal sign that Benedict XVI wants to continue on the path of dialogue.
You have said that the tacit agreement of recent years seemed to fit the idea that everyone carry on in his own way. Are there now moves that the Holy See can implement unilaterally to encourage the settling of ecclesial life in China?
HEYNDRICKX: The so-called “Eight Points” should be officially set aside. It is a document issued by the Holy See in 1988 giving some guide lines on the problems of the Chinese Church, including the ban on concelebrating the Eucharist with priests and bishops who accepted the authority of the Patriotic Association. In 2000, at a meeting of 45 people where representatives of the Holy See were also present, it was decided to publicly declare the obsolete vademecum as no longer in force, but it was never done, I don’t know why.
But is it such an important thing?
HEYNDRICKX: Those Points caused and continue to cause harm. They have been used to confirm the stories spread by some underground priests, who say that to go to mass and receive the sacraments in the parishes recognized by the government is the equivalent of committing a mortal sin. Thus a doubt was raised about the greatest treasure that the Church safeguards, in China also, that of the sacraments, which Chinese Catholics can now easily obtain. The greatest crimes against the Church are those that attack its sacramental nature. At that point, appeals for reconciliation also become ineffective. Christian unity does not come about by human command, but through the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the faithful who participate in the Eucharist around the same altar.
28 June 2005: the Bishop of Shanghai Aloysius Jin Luxian consecrating 
his auxiliary Joseph Xing Wenzhi. 
It is the first episcopal ordination to take place in the Chinese Church under the pontificate of Benedict XVI

28 June 2005: the Bishop of Shanghai Aloysius Jin Luxian consecrating his auxiliary Joseph Xing Wenzhi. It is the first episcopal ordination to take place in the Chinese Church under the pontificate of Benedict XVI

At the Triuggio Convention the borders of the dioceses were also talked about.
HEYNDRICKX: The Holy See continues to make reference to the diocesan structure previous to 1949. But in the meantime the map of the dioceses in China has changed, some were amalgamated, others were divided or have changed their own borders, often keeping in line with the new territorial subdivisions of the civil administration. This creates bureaucratic problems and conflicts of jurisdiction, further complicating the relations between civil powers, the local Church and the Holy See. The Chinese priest who dealt with this subject at the Triuggio Convention maintained that the Holy See will not accept the new mapping of the dioceses before the normalization of relations with the Peoples’ Republic. I, on the other hand, believe that it could also be talked about beforehand, directly or by indirect means. It could at least be made clear that there are no objections on principle to the recognition of the new subdivision among the dioceses.
In the longer view, according to you, should the mechanisms for the choice of bishops take account in some way of the anomalous situation experience for decades by the Church in China?
HEYNDRICKX: I believe that the same flexibility at least could be shown as is shown in other countries and in other situations, where a certain space for local requirements is recognized. The possibility exists, but it must be explored and reached only as the outcome of dialogue.
It is claimed on various sides that the dialogue between Beijing and the Holy See is being sabotaged by the officials of organizations such as the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, who fear loss of power in an eventual settlement.
HEYNDRICKX: The Patriotic Association and the other organizations for control of the Church do not have autonomous power of decision. They follow the directives that comes from the state administration for religious affairs.
But what would become of these bureaucratic structures in an eventual settlement? Their resistance is also explained by very concrete things, such as the fear of individuals of losing their jobs.
HEYNDRICKX: Some sectors of the ecclesial area not recognized by the government are asking for the Patriotic Association to be abolished. I believe that the Chinese government will not do so. But the Patriotic Association could be placed under the direction of the bishops. Each bishop, along with the diocesan liturgical commission or the financial commission, could also have a “patriotic” commission charged with managing relations with the government. It would be a way of changing the profile of the Patriotic Association from within, instead of suppressing it. But this also is not easy. However the calls for the construction of a national independent Church should be removed from the statutes of the Association.

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