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Priest urges Chinese Catholics to stay united in face of Beijing ‘defiance’

A priest from the Diocese of Zhouzhi, China, celebrates Mass at a retreat centre in the state of New York. The priest has not been quoted in the article (Photo: CNS)

The announcement of plans by Beijing authorities to ordain bishops without a papal mandate has driven a young priest from northern China to call Church leaders to work for dialogue and reconciliation among Catholics in his country.

The Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) plans reportedly include independent election and ordination of bishops by the government-organised Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the “official” Catholic bishops’ conference.

The plan also reportedly instructs the two official 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 last week, “strong reactions of anonymous sources were published by people from outside”, the priest told Catholic News Service.

The priest said that while “strong reactions from outside” China focused 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 criticising 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 brainwashing programme, 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 saw 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 favours to the open [official] church and are stricter with the underground church.”

The priest said he believed the solution was 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 would not have as much impact as when the Church spoke as one united body.

The priest acknowledged it was difficult for China’s Catholics to unite and work for reconciliation, but stressed it was 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.