At St. Francis Catholic Church in Xi’an, China, the congregation flowed out into the courtyard for Sunday Mass. Churchgoers include many young parents with children.
The service lasted more than 90 minutes, including a sermon that ebbed and flowed for nearly 20 minutes. Each section of the church has one of the Ten Commandments written in both Mandarin and English for people to ponder during Mass.
The scene was much the same the following week at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Beijing, where the Communist Party allows only state-approved places of worship and the Vatican has withheld diplomatic ties since 1949 when the party came to power.
Simply put, the Catholic Church has endured subjugation and hardship under an atheistic government. It is difficult to imagine how Catholics have survived the vagaries of Communism, imprisonment, economic retribution, and political intolerance. But the church has served as a beacon of resistance for decades.
The status of the Catholic Church may soon change. But it is unclear whether a compromise between the Chinese government and the Vatican will make things better.
The Chinese government and the church have been engaged in discussions to make relations better. In an usual move, the government-controlled press recently published a photograph of Pope Francis meeting Chinese pilgrims in Rome.
Catholics can only legally practice their religion in mainland China in state-sanctioned churches, which are not overseen by the Vatican. Under the current system, bishops are appointed by Beijing rather than the Pope.
The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was established in 1957 to ensure state-sanctioned churches toe the Communist Party line, with the state-controlled Bishop Conference of the Catholic Church in China selecting and appointing its clerics.
Most appointments have quietly received recognition from the Vatican over the years, but the Holy See has intervened and excommunicated seven who it deemed to be “illicitly ordained.”
The appointment of bishops has been one of the main sources of contention between the two sides, with Beijing saying it must have a full say in the decisions made by the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Church.
Other issues remain, including whether about 30 “underground” Catholic bishops already approved by the Vatican, but not sanctioned by Beijing, will be formally recognized by the Chinese authorities.
In an interview with The South China Morning Post, Tou Chou-seng, an academic at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan and the island’s former ambassador to the Vatican, said Beijing and the Holy See hoped a compromise over bishop appointments would ultimately lead to a normalization in their relationship. But there was still a long way to go.
“Resolving conflicts over bishop ordination is the first step, but it doesn’t put things right once and for all,” Tou said.“Historically it’s always been a long walk from reaching a bishop ordination agreement to ties being formalized,” he said.
Other Communist countries have tried to establish relations with the Vatican. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited the Holy See in 1989 vowing to build full diplomatic ties, but it took a decade for that to happen.
Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Tan Dung saw former Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, expressing Hanoi’s wish to build full ties with the Vatican, but they have yet to be established.
He added that increased numbers of underground Catholic churches in China would be more, but a critical indication of the success of any deal was whether it would lead to greater religious freedom.
“If they are continuously treated unfairly after going public, the Holy See would certainly feel apologetic to the underground church,” Tou said.
Whatever happens, it is heartening to see just how strong the Catholic Church is in China despite the numerous difficulties the faithful have faced over the years.