Pope Francis gave one of the most puzzling interviews of his pontificate back in January. Speaking to Asia Times, in what was billed as his first interview on China, Francis wasn’t his usual pithy and unguarded self. He heaped praise on a country that has persecuted Christians for the past half century, describing it as “a reference point of greatness” and a source of “inexhaustible wisdom”.
Vatican-watchers scratched their heads. They knew the Pope longed to visit China and had reached out behind the scenes to the communist leadership. But why had he suddenly taken this campaign public in the form of an uncharacteristically cloying newspaper interview?
Thanks to incisive reporting by Reuters, we are closer to the answer. The news agency has discovered that six Vatican representatives visited China in January. A few months later, the two sides agreed to create a working group based on the Joint Liaison Group convened by Britain and China before the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. The papal interview, it seems, was strategically timed to smooth the way for the working group.
According to Reuters, Chinese officials still can’t decide if the Pope is friend or foe. His simplicity and devotion to the poor seem to resonate with the Chinese people.
But Beijing hasn’t forgotten that Pope John Paul II helped to demolish the Eastern Bloc, and the Communist Party still regards the Catholic Church as a potentially revolutionary force.
The Asia Times interview was a great Franciscan gamble. The Pope risked alienating those fighting for human
The Chinese authorities still can’t decide whether Pope Francis is friend or foe rights within China and members of the persecuted “underground” Catholic Church. But the bet seems to have paid off – and we should be grateful to Pope Francis for taking it.
The working party is not seeking to restore full diplomatic relations between China and the Holy See, which were severed in 1951. The goal, according to the Vatican spokesman, is “that of facilitating the life of the Church and contributing to making relations in ecclesial life normal and serene”. The biggest obstacle to this is the dispute over whether the Pope or the Chinese authorities should appoint bishops. Reuters speculates that both sides are considering a compromise in which local clergy would elect future bishops, subject to a papal veto. The news agency also suggests that the Pope will pardon eight bishops ordained without Vatican approval in a gesture for the Year of Mercy.
The Holy See reportedly came close to a breakthrough on episcopal appointments back in 2009. The chief negotiator then was Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a supremely gifted diplomat who is now Vatican Secretary of State. But the talks ultimately failed, as they always have over the past 65 years.
A breakthrough on bishops would be a blessing for the faithful, who are split between the state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the underground Church. The Holy See is right to pursue such a rapprochement – but not at any price. Rome must continue to defend persecuted Christians wherever they are and no matter how powerful their persecutors.
Albania was the first country in the world to boast that it had abolished religion, under the brutal dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator who died in 1985. In the world’s first atheist state, the persecution of the Church and religious people went much further than it ever did in the Soviet bloc or in China. All places of worship were closed and all clergy were expelled, imprisoned or killed. On November 5, Pope Francis will declare that 38 martyrs killed by the regime are Blessed, the last step before canonisation.
These new beati – Archbishop Vincens Prenushi and 37 priests who
Albania reborn suffered between the years 1945 and 1974 – are a testimony to the survival of faith in the Albanian people, and in Albanian Catholics in particular.
Contrary to the demented pride of Enver Hoxha’s atheist project, religion has not passed away, but has persisted against all odds in Albania, where almost half of the three million-strong population profess some creed, and 10 per cent are Catholic.
It is only natural to hope that when these martyrs are raised to the altars, it will inspire Albanians, and people elsewhere, to be true to the faith they have received and to adhere to it whatever trials may come.
Meanwhile, Albania, though recovering from the communist nightmare, still has a long way to go in providing a dignified life for many of its people. Hoxha may have gone, but other challenges remain, such as poverty, corruption and organised crime.
One must hope and pray that the spirit that inspired and sustained the martyrs in their darkest hours as prisoners of Hoxha may do the same for the whole of Albania as it progresses towards a national renaissance.
In this rebirth the Catholic Church can – indeed, must – play its part in helping to build a civil society imbued with moral and spiritual values.
CATHOLIC HERALD, JULY 22 2016 3