People pray during Mass at a Catholic church in Beijing in 2014. CNS photo/Wu Hong, EPA

Chinese priest urges unity, sees government plan as way to divide church

By  N.J. Viehland, Catholic News Service
  • February 2, 2015

MANILA, Philippines - The recent announcement of this year's working plans of the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs has driven a young priest from northern China to call church leaders to work for dialogue and reconciliation among Catholics in his country.

The SARA plan reportedly supports continued independent election and ordination of bishops by the government-organized Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and Catholic bishops' conference composed of bishops who have registered with the government.

The plan also reportedly instructs the two church bodies to convene the ninth national assembly of Catholic representatives, strengthen their leadership-building and promote democracy in running the Catholic Church.

Since the religious affairs administration published its plan on its website Jan. 15, "strong reactions of anonymous sources were published by people from outside," the priest told Catholic News Service. Other Catholics in China who spoke to CNS also on condition of anonymity said they preferred to wait before commenting publicly to see if actions in the "routine publication of plans will take place or not."

The plan to hold a national assembly causes great concern because when the government convened the eighth assembly in 2010, the Holy See warned Chinese clergy not to attend, but the government pushed through with the meeting, a Chinese Catholic recalled.

The priest from the North said while "strong reactions from outside" China focus on the impact of plans on China-Vatican relations, "people like us (inside China) are also concerned about the very hard struggle we have to undergo inside ourselves and between the two Catholic communities."

"In some cases people look forward to the appointment for their ordination as a way to get power, but many others who may not be as vocal are coerced into joining because, if they refuse ordination, they will have to suffer the consequences," the priest said.

He appealed for dialogue and understanding among Catholics who might be quick to judge fellow church members who may not be as bold as others in publicly criticizing government's "defiance" of Rome.

"People like us (inside China) we have to follow regulations or the stand of the church, but in a given situation sometimes it is really difficult," the priest said.

He told the story of his classmates who refused to be ordained as deacons in 2006.

"The government set up their ordination, but they refused to follow, so the police were sent to close the entrance to the bishop's house. When some escaped house arrest, local government officials went to their homes, got their parents and asked them to tell their sons to follow the government order. Seminarians were taken for a brainwash program, and they were asked to write a letter declaring support for the policy of the government."

He said if Chinese Catholics were not careful they could be helping the government with its strategy of weakening the Catholic Church by dividing its members.

He said people inside China see the SARA plan for 2015 in this bigger and deeper historical context rather than just as provocation or trying to show the Holy See it has the church under its control.

"Even in our textbooks in high school, it is clearly stated that religion is like poison of the human mind," the priest said, noting the Communist Party's determination to keep religion from exerting power as a political force.

In his view, aside from its concern about foreign interference through religion, the Chinese government diffuses this potential political power of the church by dividing its members.

"Now, sad to say, we are divided into the so-called underground and official churches, and government can play the Catholics against each other. They give favors to the open (official) church and are stricter with the underground church."

The priest said he believes the solution is for Catholics to work toward reconciliation and to unite. "If we ourselves are divided, the government won't be afraid of the church," he said, explaining that church protest or preaching will not have as much impact as when it speaks as one united body.

The priest acknowledged it is difficult for China's Catholics to unite and work for reconciliation, but stressed it is not impossible.

"Even if China has diplomatic ties with the Holy See, it will not have as deep an impact if the local church cannot reconcile. This can be done through dialogue, using a spiritual approach," he added.

In Manila, where Chinese priests, religious and church workers are sent for post-graduate studies, Claretian Father Samuel Canilang told CNS the struggle and hope are evident, too.

Father Canilang, director of the Claretians' Institute for Consecrated Life in Asia, cited the interaction among Chinese priests and religious men and women belonging to the two Catholic communities.

"For a recent presentation on their church, in the beginning they had a heated discussion, but in the end they made a beautiful presentation. The situation of China Church on the ground is something like this," he said.

Father Canilang also coordinates scholarship and other concerns of some 300 nuns, priests, seminarians and a few lay church workers studying in the Philippines.

"There are at least 300 people you see during gatherings like Chinese New Year, mid-autumn festival and periodic recollections," the Filipino priest told CNS.

He recalled that in 2010, when the Chinese government organized the eighth assembly of Catholic representatives, his institute co-organized meetings that drew at least 100 of the students for discussions with Chinese church experts from Asia and Rome.

"It was very confusing, especially for the bishops and the faithful in China. They could not understand why it was happening, who to follow, who to obey. The government-organized assembly worsened the division," Father Canilang said.

He cited the election of new officials for the bishops' conference in China and for the government's Administration for Religious Affairs and the Catholic Patriotic Association.

Father Canilang said for the clergy, the Claretian institute tries to help the men realize the meaning of priesthood. Priesthood is a vocation from God, the institute director explained.

"It really demands deep faith. This solid conviction that your vocation comes from God will direct your obedience," he said.

He said that "a dialogue that leads to reconciliation is very much needed" in the Chinese church, acknowledging as well that this is "very problematic" given the situation in China.

Even so, he cited possibilities for dialogue at ground level, "in communities, parishes."

"The church in China is very active," and dialogue is happening among laypeople through youth camps that gather together Catholics, non-Catholics and even atheists, the priest said. "It is there that some priests who studied here found their faith and their vocation."

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