Baptisms are dropping off, vocations are collapsing. The numbers describe a Catholicism in full decline. And meanwhile the negotiation proceeds. Two revealing contributions from Cardinal Parolin
by Sandro Magister
ROME, September 1, 2016 – The disclosures about a possible agreement between the Holy See and Beijing concerning the appointment of bishops have found indirect confirmation in two consecutive contributions from the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, second in command of pontifical diplomacy.
The first is the interview released by the cardinal on August 24 to the newspaper of the Italian episcopal conference, “Avvenire”:
> Parolin: con l’accoglienza si costruisce la pace
The second and more substantial contribution is the conference Parolin held on August 27 in Pordenone, entirely dedicated to the work of Cardinal Celso Costantini, first apostolic delegate in China from 1922 to 1933 and an ardent supporter of official diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Chinese republican regime at the time, relations that were effectively established in 1946 but shortly afterward annihilated by Mao Zedong’s rise to power.
Parolin took care not to enter into the thick of the dispute between optimists and pessimists over the negotiation underway, represented respectively by – among others – the two Chinese cardinals John Tong and Joseph Zen Zekiun, the last and second-to-last bishops of Hong Kong:
> In Appointing Bishops, the Pope Leans Toward Beijing
The secretary of state instead sought to throw water on the fire and to guarantee that the Holy See will do everything possible to “arrive at an agreement that may be satisfying for all.”
When asked by “Avvenire” about the negotiations underway, Parolin responded as follows:
“The contacts between the Holy See and China continue with the spirit of good will on both sides. The Holy See is particularly eager that Chinese Catholics may be able to live out their membership in the Church in a positive way, and at the same time be good citizens and contribute to reinforcing the harmony of all of Chinese society. And this precisely because Catholics in China are fully Chinese and, at the same time, fully Catholic. The journey of mutual understanding and trust requires time, patience, and farsightedness on both sides. It is a matter of finding realistic solutions for the good of all.”
And on the “two” Churches present in China, the one submissive to the regime and the one without official recognition and exposed to every form of harassment, he said:
“To maintain that there are two different Churches in China does not correspond either to the historical reality or to the faith life of Chinese Catholics. There are instead two communities that both want to live in full communion with the successor of Peter. Each of them bears with it the historical baggage of moments of great witness and of suffering, which speaks to us of the complexity and contradictions of that immense country. The Church in China knows figures of heroic witness to the Gospel, a river of holiness that is often hidden or unknown to most. The hope of the Holy See is to behold, in the not-too-distant future, these two communities reconcile, welcome each other, give and receive mercy for a shared proclamation of the Gospel that may be truly credible. Pope Francis has at heart that the tensions and divisions of the past may be overcome, in order to be able to write a new page in the history of the Church in China. I trust that this journey may be an eloquent example for the whole world, building everywhere bridges of brotherhood and of communion.”
Less focused on current events but even more eloquent was the conference Cardinal Parolin later held in Pordenone.
For example, in reviewing Celso Costantini’s lack of success in establishing diplomatic relations with China, a lack of success due to resistance from the Vatican authorities, Parolin contrasted the distrust back then with the good will of the current pope, much more in “harmony” – he said – with the farseeing proposals of the apostolic delegate at the time:
“Costantini took into account the failure of the two negotiation attempts, considering them battles lost that did not preclude the attainment of the final victory: to establish diplomatic relations between Church and state in China. I am reminded of the harmony between this attitude and what Pope Francis has indicated about ‘the holiness of negotiation.’ In his homily at Santa Marta on June 9, 2016, the pontiff affirmed: ‘There is the need to live out “the tiny sanctity of negotiation,” or that “healthy realism” which “the Church teaches us”’: it is a matter, that is, of rejecting the logic of ‘either this or nothing’ and setting out on the path of the possible in order to be reconciled with others.”
And having come to the conclusion, in drawing a lesson for today from that great precursor who was Constantini, Cardinal Parolin said:
“Today, as then, many are the hopes and expectations for new developments and a new season in relations between the Apostolic See and China, to the benefit not only of Catholics in the land of Confucius but of the whole country, which boasts one of the greatest civilizations on the planet. I would dare to say that this will also be to the benefit of an orderly, peaceful, and fruitful coexistence of peoples and nations in a world, like our own, torn by so many tensions and by so many conflicts.
“I consider it important to emphasize this concept forcefully: the hoped-for new and good relations with China – including diplomatic relations, if God should will it so! – are not an end in themselves or a desire to be attained perhaps as “worldly” successes, but are pondered and pursued, not without fear and trembling because here it is a matter of the Church, which is a thing of God, only inasmuch as they are ‘functional’ – I repeat – to the good of Chinese Catholics, to the good of the whole Chinese people and to the harmony of the whole society, on behalf of world peace.
“Pope Francis, like his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI before him, knows well the burden of suffering, of misunderstanding, often of silent martyrdom that the Catholic community in China bears on its shoulders: it is the weight of history! But he also knows, together with the external and internal difficulties, how alive is the yearning for full communion with the successor of Peter, how much progress has been made, how many living forces are acting in witness to love of God and love of neighbor, above all of the weakest and neediest persons, which is the synthesis of the whole of Christianity. And he knows and encourages, above all in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy, reciprocal forgiveness, reconciliation between brothers and sisters who experience division, the effort of growing in understanding, in collaboration, in love!
“We are all called to accompany with affectionate closeness, respect, humility, and above all with prayer, this journey of the Church in China. This is a matter of writing a page unheard of in history, looking forward with trust in divine Providence and healthy realism, to guarantee a future in which Chinese Catholics may feel profoundly Catholic, even more visibly anchored to the firm rock that, by the will of Jesus, is Peter, and fully Chinese, without renouncing or diminishing all that which is true, noble, just, pure, lovable, honored (cf. Phil 4:8) that their history and culture have produced and continue to produce. There is nothing genuinely human, Vatican II reminds us, that does not find an echo in the hearts of Jesus’ disciples! (cf. GS no. 1).
“It must be realistically accepted that the problems to be resolved between the Holy See and China are not lacking and can generate, often because of their complexity, different positions and orientations. But such problems are not entirely dissimilar from those that arose and were addressed positively 70 years ago. Cardinal Celso Costantini therefore remains a source of inspiration and a model of extreme relevance.”
The following day, from Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying commented on Cardinal Parolin’s conference as follows:
“We are positive and sincere in improving relations with the Vatican and with the new pope, but we naturally have some principles on which we insist. We have seen progress between China and the Vatican. We maintain tranquil, friendly, and efficacious channels of communication. There is progress in our relations. We hope to work together with the Vatican to continue improving our relations.”
One difference with respect to the times of Costantini is that today the sides are reversed. Back then the one resisting the offers of the counterpart was the Holy See, while today it is the Chinese government that is more reluctant to give up its position of strength and is standing firm – as its spokesman said – on some of its “principles” that in practice are nonnegotiable, and anything but easy for the Church to smooth over and accept.
The latest of many confirmations of this hesitancy is an article published on August 29 in “Global Times,” the international magazine of the state-run “People’s Daily,” entitled “Obstacles continue to stall China-Vatican ties,” which digs up the longstanding request that the Vatican “cut its official ties with Taiwan”:
> “Global Times:” Obstacles and pessimism in China-Vatican relations
And it states:
“China is not eager to establish formal ties with the Vatican, the only European country that has not established such relations with China, because it is not an urgent issue which will affect China’s international status if it is not dealt with immediately.”
But then there is another difference, more substantial. During the years in which Costantini was apostolic delegate in China, the Catholic Church underwent an extraordinary blossoming, which he himself described like this, as Cardinal Parolin recalled:
“When I went to China in 1922 the missions, meaning the ecclesiastical districts, were 57, and none of them was entrusted to an indigenous prelate. When I left, in 1933, there were 121 ecclesiastical districts. And 23 of these were entrusted to Chinese superiors.”
Today the opposite is happening. The Chinese Church’s state of health is anything but thriving. It is a Church in retreat, grown old, with no more of the propulsive thrust of years gone by, afflicted with a sharp fall in baptisms and vocations, both male and female.
This diagnosis has been made by Anthony Lam Sui-ky, a great expert on the Church in China, in an article full of statistical details that appeared in the latest issue of “Tripod,” the magazine of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong:
> Catholic Population in China Since 2000 and Its Impact
Here it is reproduced [in comment] below.
A must-read. Because the adventure of the Chinese Church is not made only of diplomacy, but also with its “tiny sanctity.”