As the Catholic Church in China journeys toward a normalized relationship with the Holy See, one priest in dialogue with Chinese bishops has seen vast improvement in openness and dialogue on the part of leaders, both in the patriotic and underground Churches.
“That’s one very significant point, a growth in openness, a growth in the Christian churches. I think a second key change has been an openness of the Chinese to receive visitors to indeed dialogue with the Church here in Rome,” said Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo, who has been in personal contact with many Chinese bishops over the last decade.
“We know that in the last year there’s been an official delegation that has gone to Beijing, and members have come here to Rome to talk about this openness in reaching some sort of accord.”
“And certainly that is the wish of the Chinese bishops; they wish openness, they wish dialogue, they wish help to come from the Church in Rome, the Church in the United States, to help them particularly in the area of formation,” he said.
Msgr. Figueiredo holds a doctoral degree in theology and is a spiritual director at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He was formerly a staff member of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum.
At the invitation of the bishops in mainland China, he has been part of a small team helping to lead theological forums for the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference in China for the last seven years.
The team, from the organization Caritas in Veritate International, includes Henry Cappello, the organization’s president, and Professor John Cavadini, director of the McGrath-Cavadini Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame University.
The 7th Theological Forum is taking place July 13-20 in Fuzhou. In 2016 the meetings included 24 bishops, apostolic administrators, rectors, and spiritual directors of seminaries.
One day was devoted to the theological and spiritual formation of about 120 lay faithful from both the patriotic and underground Churches.
Another day was a group lecture at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank.
During the week they also met with lay Catholic leaders, such as those organizing various small group faith-based communities, doing missionary and charity work in Beijing, and one community that just opened a center for senior citizens.
“We’re surprised when we go there that in our meetings, we’re not simply meeting with members of the official Church, but also the underground Church,” Msgr. Figueiredo said.
According to the report on the 2016 meetings, the bishops said they took great encouragement from Pope Francis and from the Year of Mercy.
They also expressed “great hope” for the normalization of relations between the Church in China and the Holy See. “It was notable to observe the deep desire of the bishops for this normal relationship, and their sadness caused by the difficulties in the past,” the report stated.
Other observations noted in the report were the “great strides” of evangelical communities in mainland China, while the Catholic Church in the country appears to be growing much more slowly.
Part of the reason for this could be the visible disunity of the Church in China between the patriotic and underground Churches, as well as the struggle between the Vatican and the Chinese government over control of bishop appointments.
China and the Vatican have been in the midst of talks for some time now to reach an agreement on the appointment of bishops, which would be the first major step toward normalizing relations between the two.
It would also hopefully lead to the eventual unification of the patriotic Church and the underground Church, whose bishops are not recognized by the state.
This unity would be major for the impact of evangelization in China, Msgr. Figueiredo noted.
“It is certainly the wish of Jesus Christ that we all be one. He prayed for that at the Last Supper, so disunity is always a scandal. It’s a scandal to those who do not believe. And certainly the underground Church coming together with the official Church – there are many, many things already happening.”
“There’s so much that can be done; there’s a thirst to hear the Christian message, there’s a thirst for Jesus Christ. And the evangelization efforts of the Roman Catholic Church can certainly be helped by this unity.”
China, with 1.4 billion people, isn’t just a huge country, he said, it’s also “a country that needs to be evangelized.”
He noted that we usually think of China as a country of Buddhists or of Taoists, as it has been historically, but in recent years there has been a huge growth in Christianity, mainly in evangelical ecclesial communities. Numbers of Catholics are growing as well, but at a much slower rate.
There are currently around 100 million Christians in China, he explained, and about 12 million Catholics, half of whom belong to the patriotic Church and half to the underground Church.
The bishops who participated in the 2016 forum, according to the report, identified the main underlying problems of the Church in China as a rapid decrease in priestly vocations and the lack of adequate formation for priests, seminary rectors, spiritual directors, and bishops.
The lack of adequate preparation for marriage and the lack of ongoing spiritual support and formation material for young married couples were also considered to be ongoing difficulties for the Church.
“Imagine if we got Catholics (in China) to unite in formation, and providing that formation to even one Church our evangelization efforts would be much, much greater,” Msgr. Figueiredo said.
The reason the group goes to China each year is to communicate with the bishops about what has been happening in the Vatican, “and really, to answer their questions, what they specifically need.”
He wanted to emphasize that the Chinese bishops want outside help from the Vatican and the U.S., “they desire for us to help them.”
He concluded by quoting Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State: “We wish the good of Chinese Catholics, both of the underground and the official Church, we wish the good of Chinese society, and we wish the good of the whole of society, particularly as we look for peace.’”
“Unity can only help those three different levels.”
Alexey Gotovskiy contributed to this report.