There is a thick file sitting on the Pope's desk. Every day it gets bigger due to new memorandums. On its cover is says “China.”
The Church cut off diplomatic ties with China back in 1951. Not only. Since then, the Catholic Church has been persecuted by the regime. The Chinese government first created the Patriotic association, a sort of official Chinese church that for decades self-nominated bishops that were never recognized by the Pope.
Members of the Roman Church in China – today about be 12 million, but estimated to grow to 20 million by 2020 – live in a sort of clandestine limbo: the so called underground church.
Yet today things have slightly changed: Beijing tolerates this underground church a little more and has eased the intensity of the persecution.
This lighter approach gathered momentum after the nomination of Xi Jinping as the president of China, and of Francis, as Pope. The latter nominated Cardinal Pietro Parolin as Secretary of State. Parolin is very well know and well regarded in China due to the work he conducted between 2002 and 2009 that brought him a close to reaching an agreement with China.
Parolin was removed by Secretary of State Tarciso Bertone (who decided to nominate monsignor Ettore Balestrero, the current apostolic nunciature of Colombia) and negotiations faltered soon after.
Today the conditions for an agreement are in place. The pope continues to send signals of pacification that Beijing responds to and also amplifies. A few months ago a Chinese delegations secretly arrived in Rome to present the outlines of a potential agreement.
Inside the Vatican not everyone agrees with the Pope and with Parolin. Pope Francis is running into resistance motivated in part by hostility against China per se, and in part as an opposition to his reformist agenda.
“Resistance to the Pope comes not only in relation to family issues or to the reform of the Roman Curia. Now even China is used as a pretext,” a Vatican source explained.
Against all forms of opening to China is Cardinal Zen, one of the symbols of the recent Hong Kong protest. Around him have gathered a number of bishops opposing an opening to Beijing. These include the powerful Propaganda Fide lead by the Cardinal Fernando Filoni and his deputy, the Chinese Salesian bishop Savio Hon.
The last chapter of this intricate story unfolds with two recent interviews given by two “clandestine bishops” (two bishops that have already been arrested in China and are therefore above all suspicion) Giuseppe Wei Jingyi and Giuseppe Han Zhi-hai. The interviews were published by Vatican Insider, a newspaper written in both English and Chinese. The two bishops stated they are interested in the new climate of dialogue that is forming between China and the Vatican.
Cardinal Zen criticised these interviews as well as Parolin. Referring to the cardinal he said that he represents those who are “too involved in compromises” and have already “given up too much.”
For Pope Francis, China represents a two-level challenge: the global geopolitical one and the internal one where the opposition is trying to find every possible way to pressure the pope.
The next few months might see a number of new developments: in September the Pope will be in the US and will meet with president Obama. During the same period, the US president will meet his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. A meeting with all three figures is almost a “sci-fi” scenario, but it's possible that something will move in that direction. Bergoglio has accustomed everyone to surprises.
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