Pope Francis, Cardinal Parolin voice hope for future of Chinese-Vatican relations

The pope spoke at a conference underlining the need for Catholic faithful to balance faith and patriotic loyalty.

Shanghai Bishop Joseph Shen Bin, left, shakes hands with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin during an international conference to celebrate

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the second-highest-ranking official at the Vatican, confirmed to journalists on Tuesday (May 21) that a controversial Vatican and Chinese agreement on the appointment of bishops will likely be renewed, with some possible additions.

“We all desire that the agreement be renewed and, through some annotation, might be further developed,” said Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, addressing reporters after a conference titled “100 Years Since the Chinese Council: From History to Today.” The cardinal also addressed the Vatican’s long-sought hope to establish formal diplomatic relations with China.

“We have hoped for a long time to have some kind of presence in China, even if it’s not necessarily a pontifical consular representation or an apostolic nunciature, but in any case we hope to increase and deepen our contacts,” he said.

The conference, organized by the Pontifical University Urbaniana in Rome, convened Vatican and Chinese prelates and officials on the century anniversary of the Chinese Council, a milestone summit where church leaders gave local political authorities sway over church matters in the country. 

Appearing via video at Tuesday’s conference, Pope Francis gave his own optimistic view of the Vatican’s relations with China, recognizing that the faith of the church in China has grown “through unforeseen paths, even through times of patience and trial.”

According to a 2023 study by Pew Research Center using official data from the Chinese People’s Republic, roughly 6 million Chinese belong to the officially recognized church in China. An additional 10 million faithful are a part of the so-called underground church, which swears its loyalty exclusively to Rome, the study showed.

Pope Francis, seen on giant screen, delivers his address at the international conference to celebrate "100 years since the Concilium Sinense: between history and the present" celebrating the First Council of the Catholic Church in China, organized by the Pontifical Urbaniana University, in Rome, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Pope Francis, seen on screen, delivers his address at the international conference to celebrate “100 Years Since the Chinese Council: From History to Today,” celebrating the First Council of the Catholic Church in China, organized by the Pontifical University Urbaniana, in Rome, May 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Both the official church and the underground church have seen their numbers shrink in the past decade, losing followers and priestly vocations to other growing Christian denominations.

In 2018, the Holy See and the Chinese People’s Republic first signed a “provisionary agreement,” the contents of which remain a secret, but which Francis has said ensures that the pope appoints bishops who have been preapproved by Beijing. It has been renewed twice.

Detractors of the agreement believe that the document, besides abandoning the underground church in China, bound the pope not to call out human rights violations and international actions of the Chinese People’s Republic. Supporters say that the deal on bishop appointments is a necessary step toward forwarding relations with the emerging superpower.

The anticolonial insurrection known as the Boxer Rebellion, which broke out in 1899, coincided with a significant growth of anti-Christian sentiment in China. The Chinese Council was convened by Western priests and prelates in May of 1924 at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Shanghai. It ended by allowing Chinese Catholics to lead their own parishes, dioceses and lay organizations and perform Masses in the local language.

The council was inspired by a 1919 apostolic letter, “Maximum Illud,” by Pope Benedict XV, who cautioned that the Catholic faith must distance itself from colonial attitudes and not interfere with the local politics.

Tuesday’s anniversary event was marked by an emphasis on the need for Chinese Catholics to remain loyal to the state and integrate Chinese culture with their faith. The pope cited Archbishop Celso Costantini, who became the first papal delegate to China in 1922 and played a key role in the council. Constantini said that “the mission of the church was to evangelize, not to colonize,” the pope noted.

Parolin said he too has been inspired by Costantini as he grapples with drawn-out negotiations with Beijing’s massive bureaucratic apparatus. “I was inspired to address this case and not be afraid to address it, even if it’s a topic that is particularly difficult and complicated,” he said, adding that he has learned “to have patience.” He urged Catholics to do the same.

The secretary of state encouraged Catholics “to have a lot of hope,” he said, “because the seeds that are thrown on the earth, even if they don’t seem to immediately yield any real results, will grow and eventually aways bear some fruit.”

In a speech at the conference, Bishop Joseph Shen Bin of Shanghai, president of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, who was selected by the Chinese government and appointed by Francis in 2023, laid out the conditions for Sino-Vatican relations.

“The development of the faith in China must be aligned with the China of today, which is undergoing a process of modernization and Sinicization,” he said, using a term for the assimilation of minorities into the broader Chinese culture.

“We invite Catholics and faithful in China to accompany this development of the church,” Shen said, adding that Francis has stated that “being a good Christian is not incompatible with being a good citizen.”

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