To Many in China, the Pope Seems Worlds Away ; Sparse News of Asia Visit by Francis Signals Party's Tight Grip on Catholicism

By Wong, Edward | International New York Times, August 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

To Many in China, the Pope Seems Worlds Away ; Sparse News of Asia Visit by Francis Signals Party's Tight Grip on Catholicism


Wong, Edward, International New York Times


The sparse news treatment of the pope's first visit to the Far East is indicative of the Communist Party's attempts to maintain a tight grip on Catholicism.

Pu Ge sat on a bench outside Beijing's oldest Catholic cathedral and stared at the ornate gray edifice, contemplating God and his shepherd. She said she had thought that Pope Francis would stop in China during his current trip to Asia.

"I thought he would visit a church here, and we would get a chance to meet him," said Ms. Pu, 27, a dance teacher. "I would like to meet him, but it seems so distant."

Given the long history of tensions between the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese state media has been less than forthcoming with reports about the pope and the Catholic establishment. Broad coverage of the pope's first visit to the Far East, which began on Thursday in South Korea, was not available here. The spare news treatment is indicative of the party's continuing attempts to maintain a tight grip on Catholicism, as the number of Chinese followers grow each year, and as those followers try by various means to learn more about Francis.

The Vatican has just as great an interest in them, and also in trying to improve relations with the Communist Party. There have been signs of some warming, even if the establishment of formal ties, if permitted by the party, is still years or decades off.

While addressing bishops in Seoul, South Korea, on Sunday, the pope referred cordially to China and other Asian nations with which the Vatican does not have formal relations, in his strongest outreach yet to those governments.

"In this spirit of openness to others, I earnestly hope that those countries of your continent with whom the Holy See does not yet enjoy a full relationship may not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all," he said.

He then deviated from a prepared text, according to The Associated Press.

"I'm not talking here only about a political dialogue, but about a fraternal dialogue," the pope said. "These Christians aren't coming as conquerors, they aren't trying to take away our identity."

The important thing, he said, is to "walk together."

Breaking with tradition on Thursday, China's government allowed the pope's jet to fly through Chinese airspace as he traveled to Seoul. While above China, the pope broadcast via radio telegram a message to Xi Jinping, the Chinese president and party leader, offering his best wishes and blessings of peace.

Li Zhigang, 55, a volunteer at the Xuanwumen Cathedral here, was among a dozen or so people worshiping Friday afternoon inside the church, known formally as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. …

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