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 CNS Story:

CHINA-HOPE Feb-1-2007 (850 words) xxxi

China's underground Catholics hope pope will clarify church relations

By Catholic News Service

HONG KONG (CNS) -- Underground Catholics in China say they hope a letter Pope Benedict XVI plans to send them will not only strengthen their faith but also clearly explain how their fractured community in the mainland can be healed.

"The Holy See wants us to reconcile but does not tell us how to proceed or give us any clear instructions," underground Bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar told UCA News, an Asian church news agency.

The bishop noted that past Vatican directives instructed Catholics to avoid sacramental Communion with the government-approved or open church community, "but now we need clarification on where those directives stand, so as to eliminate mistrust and misunderstanding" among Catholics in both groups.

On Jan. 20, at the end of a high-level meeting at the Vatican to discuss the church in China, a Vatican statement said Pope Benedict would write to Catholics in China, but it did not indicate when. China's Catholic Church has been split into underground and open communities for decades, although in recent years there has been increasing interaction between the two.

The "Eight-Point Directive on Dealings with China" issued in 1988 by Cardinal Josef Tomko, then-prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, declares that all "communicatio in sacris" (sacramental Communion) with bishops and church personnel belonging to the government-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association should be avoided. The directive pointed out that, in 1957, the patriotic association issued a proclamation saying the church "had broken all relationships with the pope" and announced the church was to be "under the direct control of the government."

Bishop Wei, who was invited to attend the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican in 2005 but was barred from going by the Chinese government, said he needs to know if "a Catholic can receive sacraments from Vatican-recognized 'open' bishops who hold positions in the CPA."

Since the 1988 document remains valid, some underground Catholics hold firm and refuse to reconcile with the open church community. To sustain their faith life, many of them conduct religious services outside government-sanctioned worship venues, but government officials say such behavior disrupts social order. This dilemma and the confrontations of some clergy with the government over joining the patriotic association have sometimes resulted in priests being detained, UCA News reported.

In northern China, an underground church leader who requested anonymity told UCA News that the Vatican urgently needs to clarify its position because government officials are pushing clergy to register for a so-called "priest license."

Possessing such a license allows priests to work openly without interference and to register their worship places. Without it, priests are detained or sent back to their hometowns and prevented from doing pastoral work.

The church leader said lack of a license could put clergy at risk of being charged with "illegally conducting religious activities."

Registration conditions vary from place to place. It usually includes requirements for underground priests to concelebrate Mass with a government-designated open church bishop and sometimes compels them to profess support for the "independent, autonomous and self-management" principle that the government insists on for the church.

Bishop Wei, 48, agreed that the problem of priests being coerced to get a priest license urgently needed clear-cut directives from the Vatican. The Vatican allows an underground community to get such a license after all of its priests achieve consensus, but the bishop said it was "illogical to decide such serious matters simply by casting votes."

Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo of Zhengding, an underground prelate who said he is always closely watched, once told UCA News it is impossible to assemble all diocesan priests to discuss the matter because they are scattered in so many places.

An underground priest in northern China told UCA News he looks forward to receiving specific instructions. He said he agrees with a comment recently made by Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong in the Hong Kong diocesan weekly Sunday Examiner. In the Jan. 7 issue, Cardinal Zen said being in communion with the Holy Father yet remaining in an independent Chinese church is a contradiction.

In southeastern China, an underground priest echoed a similar longing for concrete instructions from the Vatican.

"If the measures of the Holy See remain unclear, we will continue to be confused and speculators may continue to fish in our troubled waters," he told UCA News.

"We have suffered a lot," he said, "but it would be ridiculous if our suffering becomes a stumbling block for reconciliation. What should we do?"

Underground Bishop Paul Xie Tingzhe of Urumqi in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwestern China, said the papal letter should avoid confronting the Chinese government.

"Our insistence is for our faith and for God, not for immediate reward," he told UCA News Jan. 22, and "we should adjust ourselves for the sake of the whole church."

The bishop, whom the government recognizes only as a priest, added that he hopes the pope will explain troublesome issues because it could quicken Vatican negotiations with the government.

END


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