by Gianni Valente
Rome (Agenzia Fides) - For the past 15 years, Catholics from all over the world have been invited to pray for their brothers and sisters in the Church in China once a year. Since then, the World Day of Prayer for Catholics in China has taken place on May 24, the feast of Mary Help of Christians, who is venerated with that title in the national Shrine of Our Lady of Sheshan, near Shanghai.
It was Pope Benedict XVI who introduced the Day of Prayer for the Church in China with his Letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007.
Joseph Ratzinger has always perceived that the experiences of Catholics in China are linked in a special way to the mystery of the Church. And even before he became Bishop of Rome, he was instrumental in directing and guiding the decisions of the Holy See in the often difficult matters of Catholicism in the People's Republic of China.
In the early 1980s, at the beginning of the long period he spent at the helm of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the then Bavarian cardinal had conducted the most significant work of discernment implemented by the Holy See regarding the condition of the Church catholic in contemporary China.
In those years, when the traumas of the Cultural Revolution were slowly being overcome and Deng Xiaoping was launching his policy of economic "opening" to the world, the Vatican often lacked the information and coordinates to understand what was really happening to Chinese Catholics. At that point, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Holy See, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, was conducting a two-year in-depth investigation that ended in 1985 and confirmed that the episcopal ordinations, which had taken place in China since 1958 without the consent of the Pope, were illegitimate from a canonical point of view, but should nevertheless be regarded as valid. The study noted that the rites of consecration had been manipulated, but the minimal, formal and material conditions had in any case been respected, i.e. the gestures and formulas required to guarantee the sacramental validity of an episcopal ordination.
The thorough Magisterium study conducted under the direction of Joseph Ratzinger favored the willingness of the Holy See to a large extent to grant most of the applications of bishops consecrated without papal consent who, in those years, asked the Pope for legitimacy of their episcopal ordination by the Holy See. The study on the validity of Chinese episcopal ordinations, signed by Ratzinger as Prefect, is the most authoritative ecclesiastical declaration that the Holy See has issued in recent decades on the situation of the Church in China, on a dogmatic, doctrinal, theological and pastoral level. This study recognized and certified that the Catholic characteristics of the church experience in China had not been distorted or disfigured by the conditioning suffered from historical circumstances. And this realization should guide the decisions to be made from now on, also in relations with the political authorities and the Chinese environment, whereby the salvation of souls should always be the top priority.
This doctrinal study carried out in the 1980s became the inspiring criterion from which, despite many difficulties along the way, the path that led to the provisional agreement reached in 2018 between the Holy See and the Beijing government on the mechanisms of selection and the appointment of new Chinese Catholic bishops.
As Pope, Benedict XVI published the aforementioned Letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007. That document represents one of the highlights of his papal magisterium, and is the most relevant magisterial pronouncement reserved by the Apostolic See to the Church in China in recent decades.
In the Letter to Chinese Catholics, among other things, Benedict XVI reaffirms that «Despite many and serious difficulties, the Catholic Church in China, by a particular grace of the Holy Spirit, has never been deprived of the ministry of legitimate Pastors who have preserved the apostolic succession intact». Thus it was recognized that, in China, the troubled historical events had not caused in the ecclesial structure incurable fractures regarding the sacramentality and apostolicity of the Church. Some of the bishops, «not wishing to be subjected to undue control exercised over the life of the Church, and eager to maintain total fidelity to the Successor of Peter and to Catholic doctrine, have felt themselves constrained to opt for clandestine consecration […] Other Pastors, however, under the pressure of particular circumstances, have consented to receive episcopal ordination without the pontifical mandate, but have subsequently asked to be received into communion with the Successor of Peter and with their other brothers in the episcopate». In that Letter, Benedict XVI also recalled that «the clandestine condition is not a normal feature of the Church’s life», and hoped that even the so-called "underground" bishops, impeded or hindered in the exercise of their episcopal ministry by political apparatuses, may be recognized as legitimate pastors «by governmental authorities for civil effects too – insofar as these are necessary – and that all the faithful may be able to express their faith freely in the social context in which they live». The same Letter also hoped for «an accord to be reached with the Government so as to resolve certain questions regarding the choice of candidates for the episcopate» and to find a harmonization between the ecclesiastical areas and provinces and the new subdivisions of the civil administration.
In the wake of Matteo Ricci, it was repeated that «the Catholic Church seeks no privilege from China and its leaders», and that also «the Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State; rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ» who «recognized civil authority and its rights when he ordered tribute to be paid to Caesar, but he gave clear warning that the greater rights of God must be respected».
In 2010, in the book-interview Light of the World, written with Peter Seewald and published by the Vatican Publishing House, Benedict XVI, speaking of the events of the Church in China, underlined that precisely «the lively desire to be in union with the Pope has always been present in illegitimately ordained bishops. This allowed everyone to walk the path towards communion, along which they were accompanied by the patient work done with each of them individually».
As pope, on May 7, 2008, Joseph Ratzinger attended the concert in the Paul VI hall of the Vatican by the China Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing and the choir of the Shanghai Opera, which performed Mozart's Requiem and popular Chinese songs for Benedict XVI. On that occasion, the Pope greeted Deng Rong, founder of the Orchestra and daughter of Deng Xiaoping, and the Ambassador of the People's Republic of China in Italy. To this day, that remains the only public meeting between a Pope and an official representative of the government of the People's Republic of China.
As pope, Joseph Ratzinger authorized the resumption of direct dialogue with the Beijing authorities on the question of Chinese episcopal ordinations. On February 26, 2020, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Dean of the College of Cardinals, sent a letter to all the cardinals in the world in which reference was made to documents consulted in person in the Current Archive of the Secretariat of State, which certify that «Pope Benedict XVI had approved the provisional Agreement on the appointment of Bishops in China, which was signed only in 2018». (Agenzia Fides, 4/1/2023)