by Gianni Valente
Leuven (Agenzia Fides) - On September 22, 2018, exactly five years ago, representatives of the Holy See and the People's Republic of China signed in Beijing the Provisional Agreement on the procedures for the appointment of new Chinese bishops.
The Agreement was extended twice, in 2020 and 2022. And the confirmed provisional nature of the instrument leads us to avoid definitive evaluations of its application. The anniversary of the signing is, however, an opportunity to collect the suggestions and reflections of the great Belgian missionary Jeroom Heyndrickx, of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Scheut Missionaries).
Father Jeroom is almost 92 years old, and has devoted his entire long life to serving the Church in China.
Father Jeroom, we learned yesterday that two Chinese Bishops will participate in the Synod that is about to open in Rome. And today marks five years since the first signing of the Provisional Agreement between China and the Holy See on the appointment of Chinese Bishops. What do you think of this fortuitous coincidence?
JEROOM HEYNDRICKX: The presence of two Bishops of Mainland China will take part to the next Synod is obviously a clear fruit of the agreement with China of Pope Francis (2018) to initiate ongoing dialogue and exchange. Another concrete fruit is the recent visit of the Chinese bishops to Leuvain - after which they also visited the Church of France for three days and had three encounters in the Netherlands. At the invitation of Cardinal De Kesel, 4 Chinese bishops obtained permission from the Chinese civil authorities to come to Leuven in early September to explore how to reactivate the fruitful and meaningful exchange and collaboration with the Verbiest Foundation.
Opinions and comments continue to circulate on the Agreement, unable to grasp the crucial point of the Agreement and lose sight of its main purpose.
HEYNDRICKX: Thanks to this Agreement all new ordained Catholic bishops are ordained in full communion with the Pope, and are now legitimate and recognized by both the Holy See and China. That removes one main obstacle to more unity in the Church. This way a historical move towards more unity in the Church is happening under our own eyes.
Several observers point out that since the signing of the Agreement, there have been few new ordinations
HEYNDRICKX: True, the dialogue with China did not progress so smoothly even after the Pope’s agreement. Why should we hide this! We too feel disappointed that not more bishops have been appointed to fill the empty seats for bishops in more than 25 dioceses in China. We also feel that the practice of freedom of religious belief is too limited in China. Some political parties in Western countries however exclusively point to these aspects of the agreement. They criticize the Pope’s efforts to dialogue and promote the spiritual goals of the Church. Why? Perhaps to promote their own political goal. But facts like the recent visit of Catholic Chinese bishops in Europe proves that their criticism is unfounded.
Can you tell us something about the days spent with the Chinese bishops in Belgium?
HEYNDRICKX: In Leuven, as well as the encounters with Cardinal De Kesel and CICM (Scheut) missionaries in Belgium happened in an atmosphere of Christian brotherhood seeking how the Churches in China and the West can exchange and confirm each other in faith. Churches in the West these days welcome (and need!) this confirmation in faith. They are inspired and confirmed by the faith of Christians in China, while the Church in China feels strengthened by the brotherly welcome they receive in the West
The atmosphere and spirit in the encounters all through this visit must be seen in contrast with the past sixty years of tension and mutual suspicion, division even inside the Church between “unofficial” and “official”, legitimate, or illegitimate. We may not be blind by not recognizing this giant step, and without the Pope’s agreement this would not take place. Achieving more unity inside the Church by crossing beyond misunderstandings inside the Church is a missionary achievement of this Pope. And there is more. We need to open our eyes to more remarkable evolutions these days.
As a missionary, you closely followed the "new beginning" of the Church in Mongolia in the 1990s, where Pope Francis went at the beginning of September...
HEYNDRICKX: I was surprised by the powerful testimony has that visit sent to the Church and in fact to the whole world. It reminded me of the time of October 1991 when, before the new Catholic Mission in Mongolia was started, I was sent by the Holy See and the CICM Superior to visit Ulaanbaatar and explore ways for evangelization in preparation to the new CICM Mongolian Mission. I was honored to be received by the then vice Premier Minister Dorligjav and was impressed by his words. He said: “Father, our country has been for seventy years under the Soviet atheist regime. Now that we are liberated, we do not return to our old regime with Lama Boudhism as State Religion. We are now an independent Republic with freedom of belief. In order to offer our people the chance to believe in the Christian religion we invite missionaries to come here. You are welcome, but please remember that our people are Boudhists or atheists. Do not be aggressive in your evangelization efforts. Rather join our country’s efforts to care for the poor. Help us in health care and education.” Which is in fact what the small Church community of Ulaanbaatar has been doing ever since 1992: opening schools, meeting the needs of the poor, caring for handicapped, for orphans and abandoned youth.
Also from Mongolia, the Pope sent a message to the Chinese people and Chinese Catholics. What is the right path to follow?
HEYNDRICKX: The Agreement of the Holy See with China is five years old. Facts as the participation of Chinese Bishops in the Synod and the visit of the Chinese bishops to Leuven, France and Netherlands open our eyes and reveal that more is being gained than we knew. It is obvious and clear that, despite some negative news that comes to us from China, the open contacts between the Church of China and the Universal Church have increased significantly in recent years. It is evident that this happens thanks to the positive ongoing dialogue with China by Pope Francis. We are all invited to be more aware of this and support the untiring efforts of this Pope of dialogue in service of the Church.
The fact that progress in improving the situation comes only slowly, should not surprise us. Both partners – the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China – are trying to get across the E-W confrontation of the 19th century and the Opium War and all the enmity, mutual prejudice and lack of understanding that grew out of it. The Pope is acting as the Pioneer China missionary of our time and that’s where he badly needs and deserves the full support of the whole Church. instead of standing at a distance watching what happens. Our missionary creativity will find ways to build roads where there are none. (Agenzia Fides, 22/9/2023)