Challenges persist for Church in China

In early February, news outlets from across the globe reported the death of Cosmas Shi Enxiang, the underground bishop of Yixian in northeast China. Bishop Shi had been imprisoned since being arrested on April 13, 2001 — Good Friday. He was being held in an unknown location before reports of his death surfaced.

On Feb. 14, Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, joined other Catholics in a protest organized by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong diocese. The group was seeking answers from the government on the status of Bishop Shi. “The news of his death had been circulating for two weeks,” Cardinal Zen said. “The government should give us an answer. Is he really dead? When and where did it happen? Will they return the remains to his family?”

Father Bernardo Cervellera wrote in a post on the Asia website that the government is afraid to confirm anything or hand over the body, knowing that thousands of the faithful around China will attend the funeral and demand an investigation into his detention and possible death. Bishop Shi’s funeral could unite the faithful and expose the government’s unjust detentions and the unexplained deaths of many underground church clergy during the last two decades, which would be especially unwelcome now, at a time when the government is attempting to portray itself as cleaning up corruption. As Father Cervellera comments, “in China, the dead are as frightening as the living, if not even more so.”

Church history

The tension surrounding Bishop Shi is representative of the ongoing struggle of the Chinese Church. Christianity first entered China in the year 635 through the efforts of monks from the Church of the East in Syria and spread for more than 200 years before being suppressed and dying out. The first Catholic missionaries to reach China were Franciscans, led initially by St. John of Montecorvino, who spread the Catholic Faith starting in the late 1200s. After the newly founded Ming dynasty expelled all Christians in 1369, Christianity is thought to have died out for the next two centuries.

The famous era of the Jesuits in China began in 1582 and continued throughout the next two centuries. In 1773, the Jesuits were suppressed around the world partly due to their stance on whether the Chinese could venerate images of those such as Confucius. The ban greatly hindered the Church’s evangelization efforts on China.

In 1911, the Qing dynasty fell, giving way to the Republic of China. Afterward, many missionaries worked in China during these years, and more Chinese clergy and religious were ordained. In the late 1930s, the government joined forces out of necessity with its bitter Communist rivals to fight off the invading Japanese. After Japan was defeated by the United States and its allies in 1945, the Nationalists and Communists resumed their civil war, and the Communists, led by Chairman Mao Zedong, eventually won and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on Oct. 1, 1949. The government in 1957 demanded that Catholic leaders join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA).

Popes from Pius XII to Benedict XVI have rejected the oversight of the CCPA, which today still tries, in Pope Benedict’s words, to “control and take decisions concerning important ecclesial questions, including the appointment of bishops.” Some priests and bishops, perhaps one-third, agreed to join the CCPA and were allowed to worship in registered churches led by CCPA clergy, while around two-thirds refused and became the underground church, worshipping in secret or unregistered locations. The bishop of Shanghai, Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei (1901-2000), became the de facto leader of the underground church, spending more than 30 years in prison for refusing to join the CCPA and affirming his allegiance to the pope.

After Mao’s death, churches were allowed to reopen but were still required to register and be subject to CCPA control. This situation continues today, which is why the Church in China is still divided.

The Church today

Most clergy in the CCPA today are recognized and approved by the Holy See, and the Chinese government has allowed many Vatican-approved candidates to be ordained and installed as bishops. At the same time, deep conflict still exists over those who have been ordained in Vatican-unapproved ceremonies orchestrated by the CCPA, often with the forced cooperation of approved bishops.

Both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2007 letter to Catholics in China, urged the underground and official communities to reconcile and bring the era of division to an end, while still expressing their support for those in the underground church who have endured greater suffering.

While tensions and complexities abound, the Catholic Church in China continues to flourish. Masses in both official and underground churches often overflow with worshippers, thousands of adults and children are baptized each year, and in spite of constraints, Catholics run many educational and charitable programs throughout the country. Pope Benedict established May 24 as the Day of Prayer for the Church in China, voicing his prayer “that the unity among you may become ever deeper and more visible,” and promised the “fraternal solidarity” of Catholics everywhere, so that “your intrepid loyalty to [Christ’s] Vicar on earth will be rewarded, even if at times everything can seem a failure.”

As he wrote for a September 2014 article for the website Catholic World Report, Anthony E. Clark, an expert on the Church in China, says, “one thing that is clear about China’s Catholics is that they are well equipped to survive and flourish no matter what pressures are laid upon them, and the blood of the martyrs, from Mao to now, nourishes and inspires their commitment to Christ, the Church, and the future of Christianity in their native China.”

China’s older Catholics have experienced the horror of a society built upon the complete rejection of God. Many people today also experienced the emptiness of a life that seems devoid of any meaning except the pursuit of material gain and self-interest. The witness of faithful Catholics continues to show them that a higher and more fulfilling way exists.

The Francis effect

Much speculation ensued last fall about a possible shift in Vatican-Chinese relations when Pope Francis sent a message to Chinese president Xi Jinping as he flew to South Korea. “I extend the best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation,” Pope Francis wrote.

While the message was identical to those sent to other countries, many who keep an eye on relations between China and the Holy See are primed to look for clues suggesting possible changes in the relationship.

What stood out to many was that the Holy Father was given permission to fly through Chinese airspace at all since Pope St. John Paul II had not been allowed when he flew to the Philippines during the last papal trip to East Asia in 1995. Some experts, including Zhuo Xinping, one of China’s leading scholars studying Christianity, commented in the state-run China Daily that Pope Francis’ status as both a Jesuit (whose order has a long, well-regarded history in China) and an Argentine (from a developing country) may help China’s leaders to view him more favorably than previous popes. Although Pope Francis stated that, if invited, he would travel to China “tomorrow,” the exciting prospect of a long hoped for papal visit would mark a breakthrough with the Chinese government that still seems unlikely in the near future. It is, however, a goal toward which he continues to work and pray.

John Lindblom studies in the World Religions and World Church doctoral program at the University of Notre Dame.