Patience Asked of Rome in Treating China Split

Article excerpt

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Jesuit Fr. Yves Nalet paused in the ritual of lighting his pipe to describe an incident at a Catholic parish in mainland China. It was a Sunday, he said. A Chinese priest -- a member of what Nalet calls the "above -ground" church -- was just about to begin Mass.

Outside, a group of Catholics had gathered, saying the rosary. As the Mass started they prayed so loudly they drowned out the priest's words inside the church. These were members of the so-called "underground" church -- people who do not recognize bishops or church structures that in any way cooperate or coexist alongside Beijing, people who generally also oppose Vatican II changes.

"When you see that," remarked Nalet of the rosary group, "you just wonder what kind of faith is behind it. You can understand the problem, which is okay, but what are you going to build on here, where's the basis for reconciliation? And of course the (Beijing) government is just too happy to have those divisions and will foster them to make sure the church isn't established as an important force."

The rosary incident, Nalet said, was an extreme example of the divide that exists in certain places, a divide that is an enormous hurdle for the local church in China, a nightmare for the Vatican and a cause of great sadness among many overseas Chinese Catholics.

Yet Nalet and other counsel patience for the Vatican and Pope John Paul II who, for all of his travel, has never set foot in this most populous country on earth.

The divisions are also exacerbated by outsiders, Catholics from Taiwan and Hong Kong and elsewhere "will come in and help one faction build a church and not another," said Nalet. "There are priests who feel if you are helping the church in China you must only help the underground church with missals and Bibles and things. All this increases conflict, lessens the chance of reconciliation," he said.

In Hong Kong, Maryknoll Fr. Ronald Saucci, deputy executive director of the Union of Catholic Asian News -- UCAN -- said his view is that "all Catholics in China have suffered for their faith."

He suggested that talking of "divisions" furthers the aims of "interest groups outside China who have political and other reasons -- including self-justification -- for maintaining the divisions."

In other respects, Saucci said, "the distinctions are rapidly disappearing because Chinese Catholics consider themselves one Catholic church." Effective last year, Nalet said, any church entity that is not registered has problems. "So it is more difficult for (the underground) people to exist in the countryside unless the (communist) cadres are tolerant."

Further, Beijing is stepping up the pressure on religious groups. "At a recent meeting with all religious leaders the propaganda department, United Front, told them, `patriotism, and no Westernization,'" said Nalet. He presumed, he said, that "patriotism" was aimed at the Muslims, even Tibetans, whereas the "Westernization" prohibition targeted local Catholics and Protestants, particularly Protestants, open to outside influence and assistance.

Complexity in China's Catholic circles is heightened, too, by the generational divide. "This new generation of priest, for example," said Nalet, "is different from the old one. For the younger ones the (underground church's) fight is history; they did not even know the Cultural Revolution," he said, referring to the country-wide period of repression during the 1960s. …