Pope Francis on Wednesday offered a shout-out to Chinese Catholics, specifically those who endure “daily trials and tribulations.” Though interpreted as a sign of the pope’s commitment to his flock in China, the greeting also comes at a time when Francis is facing increased pressure over his recent deal with the government on the appointment of bishops.
The comments came ahead of the May 24 feast of the Our Lady of Sheshan, a highly venerated image at the Chinese shrine of the same name near Shanghai.
Benedict XVI declared the feast a World Day of Prayer for the Church in China in 2008.
“This happy occasion allows me to express special closeness and affection to all Catholics in China, those who, through daily trials and tribulations, continue to believe, hope and love,” Francis said during the May 22 audience. The pope assured Chinese Catholics that Mary would be “a help for you all to be witnesses of charity and brotherhood, always staying united in the communion of the universal Church,” and led pilgrims in praying a Hail Mary, asking specifically for the intercession of Our Lady of Sheshan.
Speaking to Crux, Father Bernardo Cervallera, head of Asia News and an expert in Chinese affairs, said that in his view, by directing his message to all Chinese Catholics, the pope was issuing a “push toward the unity of the so-called underground church and the official Church, because after the agreement, only in some areas has there been an effort to reconcile.”
In other areas, “there is more hardness than there used to be. So he is pushing for a stronger reconciliation,” Cervallera said, adding that many Chinese Catholics “feel abandoned and betrayed by this deal.”
Reached last September, the Vatican’s deal with China on the appointment of bishops is believed to allow both Chinese officials and the pope to have a say in the bishops who are named, however, the details of the agreement have not been made public.
To date, the only element of the deal made public has been the Vatican’s agreement to recognize seven illicitly consecrated Chinese bishops who were previously excommunicated, allowing them to legitimately lead Chinese dioceses.
In the immediate aftermath, the agreement was hailed in some quarters as progress, yet many others criticized the Vatican, insisting they were giving too much power to the Chinese Communist Party and ignoring the plight of Catholics who had been jailed, tortured or had faced other forms of persecution for remaining loyal to Rome.
Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng in a November 2018 essay for Public Discourse called the deal “a slap in the face to millions of Catholics and other faithful religious people in China who have suffered real persecution” under the Chinese Communist party.
In recent months, pressure has mounted for the Vatican to make the terms of the deal public, with many experts arguing that the secrecy of the agreement has made religious persecution in China worse, rather than better.
U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said while in Hong Kong in March that the deal has set a poor precedent for government interference with other religious communities, including Tibetan Buddhism and other Christian denominations.
Earlier this year, ex-Trump strategist Steve Bannon told Crux that he is planning to sue the Vatican as a way of compelling them to release the text of the deal under the terms of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
“There’s a process in that deal … leading to full diplomatic relationships between the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party, and that throws Hong Kong, it throws Taiwan, it throws a hundred million Catholics under the bus,” Bannon said. “This is outrageous. You can’t do this.”
Similarly, in a recent interview with Crux, women’s activist Reggie Littlejohn, whose organization Women’s Rights Without Frontiers is one of the only NGOs on the ground in China fighting forced abortion and offering assistance to abandoned widows, said “It would help everyone if that deal would be made public, because right now the Chinese government is using it to really persecute Catholics.”
Since the terms of the deal have not been released, Chinese officials, she said, have been “using the secrecy to say that it authorizes things I have no doubt were never authorized by the Vatican, so I think it would be very, very helpful to the Catholics in China for that deal to be made public.”
Among the things authorized have been the destruction of several churches and Marian shrines, she said.
According to Asia News, in October 2018, just a month after the deal was struck, Chinese authorities tore down two Marian shrines: Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows in Dongergou (Shanxi), and Our Lady of Bliss, commonly referred to as “Our Lady of the Mountain,” in Anlong (Guizhou).
The two pilgrimage sites, used by both official and underground communities, were allegedly destroyed because there were “too many crosses” and “too many holy paintings” inside.
Several other observers operating on the ground in China have insisted that since the agreement was struck, the pace of destruction has increased.
“So far under the deal, I don’t see any benefit to the Catholics,” Littlejohn said. “We need to see what this deal says to try to prevent more destruction happening in the name of the deal.”
In April, Cardinal Pietro Parolin insisted that the Vatican’s hope in making the deal is that it “will help, not limit, religious freedom.”
He stressed the need to be patient and focus on the long-term goal, saying, “We want things done immediately, but things in history change very slowly. This is the wisdom of the Holy See. She is not looking for immediate results, she’s looking for a result that is in the hands of God, which is also in our hands as much as we can help God in his plan.”
Yet despite the criticism, Cervallera said he was happy to hear the pope’s greeting, believing it could be a much-needed gesture to Catholics still struggling with the agreement.
Though he did not mention any specific persecution, the reference to the trials many Chinese Catholics endure on a daily basis gets the message across, he said, but stressed that at the moment, unifying Catholics in China “is the most important thing” for Francis.
Francis, he said, wanted “to give support and to push (Chinese Catholics) toward unity…because right now the Chinese are divided. Until they are unified, they will never be anything.”