Power of Prayer


On the day when Father Joseph Liao Hongqing was to be ordained the 'official' bishop of the Meixian diocese in Guangdong province, local officials of the state-run Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) thought they had the situation well under control. 

Father Liao had been approved by both Pope John Paul and Chinese authorities, but eyewitnesses say local officials were keen to control the event. Father Liao was not allowed to use his mobile phone before the ceremony, and other priests and nuns were kept at a distance. The local government officials wanted to control the key moment in the ceremony, when the presiding bishop was to read the official appointment document from the pope. Instead, a document was read declaring that the new bishop had been appointed by the Bishop's Conference of the Catholic Church in China, a body not recognised by the Vatican. 

The officials were shocked, and local Catholics amazed, however, when the newly consecrated bishop boldly announced - in a hesitant and low voice - that he had been appointed by the pope, and that he pledged loyalty to the Vatican. 

Bishop Liao is not alone. It's estimated that some 90 per cent of the 70-odd official bishops, who fall under the control of the Communist Party, have secretly or openly sought and been granted legitimisation by the pope. However, many hide this fact from their flocks and the authorities to avoid problems with the government. 

Bishop Liao's brave statement came just two weeks after a bishop in China's underground church issued a controversial open letter to fellow Catholics. In 'A Letter to My Friends', Bishop Han Zhihai made a rare call on priests in both the 'official' and 'unofficial' churches to come out of the closet and publicly confirm their declared allegiance to the Vatican. 

Bishop Han hinted that once Catholic allegiances were made clear, Catholics would be able to proceed down the road towards restoring the unity of the church in China. 

This is not how things were supposed to evolve when the communist government began its assault on Christianity in the early 1950s. Shortly after taking power, the party began arresting and deporting foreign clergy. 

The CPA was established in 1957, with a mission more focused on persecution than propagation of the faith. Its first task was to deal with Chinese who refused to split with the Vatican. Clergy and laity were imprisoned, beaten, and some were even killed, driving Catholics loyal to the pope underground. During the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), even official Catholics suffered for their beliefs, as state churches were shut down and converted to warehouses and factories, with some priests even forced to marry. 

But about five decades of state control and often brutal oppression have failed to destroy the underground church. Today the unofficial church numbers an estimated eight million members, compared with four million for the state church. 

More important, recent anecdotal evidence suggests that the political issues that have divided the underground and official Catholics for five decades are beginning to fade as Catholics on both sides step up their co-operation. One analyst says that as many as 70 per cent of priests in the official church have also been secretly ordained in the underground church. 

'The line between underground and official church is indeed blurring,' said Richard Madsen, professor of sociology at the University of California in San Diego, and an expert on the Catholic church in China. 'For the church this is a good thing. But not necessarily for the government. The government may be afraid that more people in the official church are becoming more like the underground in their beliefs and attitudes than people in the underground church becoming like the official church.' 

A European scholar, who studies the Catholic church in China, said: 'The government wants to hold on to the church and control it.' 

A growing number of Catholics are now practising their faith in a grey area. Although a large number of underground Catholics have traditionally avoided any contact with the state church, more believers are floating between the two churches, attending a state service one week, an underground mass the next. 

And in some areas where local authorities are open-minded or apathetic, the two groups use the same venues for services, albeit often separately. In one instance last year, official and underground priests in one diocese celebrated mass together. In another diocese, the official and unofficial bishops live in the same house, wearing different titles. 

The state has allowed about 200 official priests to go to the US to study and gain parish experience. Unofficial priests, also known as hei shenfu, or 'black priests', are also quietly going to America and Europe for the same purpose, without the government's approval. 

'They know each other closely and when they come back, it's easier for them to co-operate,' said the European scholar. 

Official Catholics - both laity and clergy - are also openly expressing their resentment of the CPA. The organisation is controlled by different people in different areas - bishops in some places, lay people, usually atheists, in others. In one predominantly Muslim area, the CPA leaders are Muslims. 

In January 2000, when the CPA attempted to carry out the ordination of five bishops not approved by Rome, the move backfired. Sources say the plan originally called for a larger number of priests to be elevated, but many refused to take part in the ceremony, as did teachers and seminarians at the National Seminary in Beijing. 

Conservative members of the underground church who have suffered for decades remain fiercely sceptical, and many have worked against reconciliation of the two bodies. 

Bishop Han wrote that underground priests long feared that the CPA would bring about a schism by attempting to create an independent Chinese Catholic church. He said he and his fellow priests had long refused to join them in religious services and also encouraged Catholics to do the same. 

The extent of this division was illustrated on Good Friday on April 9 this year when 1,000 Catholics attended services in the official St Joseph's Cathedral in Tianjin. At the same time, another 200 underground Catholics held their own liturgy at the Marian Shrine inside the compound, refusing to have anything to do with the official congregation inside the church. 

Their leader, Bishop Stephen Li, who was recognised by the state as a priest but not a bishop, was banished to a church in a remote mountain area. An overseas Catholic news service reported the unofficial group had been praying at the shrine for 10 years, and that the government was aware of the situation. 'The community inside the church is run by communists,' a man told a reporter from the Union of Catholic Asian News, adding that he believed the souls of Catholics who worship inside the church would go to hell. Hundreds of Catholics travelled several hours to the mountain church to celebrate the holiday with Bishop Li. 

It's no surprise that underground Catholics remain wary of the official church. They continue to face harassment, arrest and even death in Chinese prisons. Unregistered churches are routinely torn down in some areas. In June, the Vatican criticised the arrest of several underground bishops, but government authorities denied any knowledge of the incidents. 

Some Catholics who are also passionate anti-communists do not have confidence in the Vatican's ability to negotiate with the central government, and are working against any sort of reconciliation. According to one analyst, there are also factions in the Vatican that are an obstacle to rapprochement. 

The central government has been keen to take advantage of these divisions. Professor Madsen said Beijing began to 'foment polarisation' in 2000, in what he called 'the old policy of making people 'draw a clear line' between the good people and the enemy'. 

'That didn't work too well, and there was a period of some relaxation,' he said, adding that since then there have been alternating periods of 'relaxation and tightening'. 

The split between the two churches poses a challenge to the future of the church in China, but there is a growing sense that reconciliation is necessary and unavoidable. The Vatican has for years been encouraging the two sides to unite, arguing that Catholics on both sides have suffered for their faith. 

'Rome is beginning to understand that some of the priests and bishops who joined the open church did it as a commitment to the church,' said the European scholar. He said their reasoning was that: 'If we don't do it, the church may disappear, and we will have to go completely underground.' 

The divisions may weaken over the next decade as ageing Catholics pass from the scene. The younger generation - unburdened by memories of past harsh oppression - feel less hostility towards the state church. 

'The younger Catholics did not live through the Cultural Revolution and they never knew the persecution of this period in history,' said the European scholar. 'They have not lived through this. Unless there's some big faux pas by the open church, reconciliation of the Catholic church is in the making.' 

Sister Betty Ann Maheu, who researches the Catholic church in China at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, and who has just returned from a fact-finding trip to churches on the mainland, is optimistic about the future. 'The divisions are political and not doctrinal, and that's important,' she said. 

And clergy such as Bishop Han will likely lead the way. He said 'some doubts still linger on in my heart' about the attitude of the CPA regarding ties with the Holy See. But he said that he was very encouraged by the fact that the vast majority of bishops, priests and Catholics are united in the same faith and with the pope. 

'We must admit the fact that a new situation is emerging for the church in China, which calls on us to take new initiatives,' the bishop wrote. 

'The fact that a young bishop had the guts to write a letter speaking for reconciliation is a ray of hope,' said Sister Maheu. 'I'm still hopeful. Time has a way of healing things.'






© 2013 Paul J. Mooney