When the news of Pope Benedict’s resignation spread, on Monday, February 11, the Far East was in the middle of New Year holidays, dedicated to family reunions.
The Hindu communities of Southern Asia were dealing with the much-attended Mela Kumbh Mela pilgrimage. Notwithstanding, the announcement was widely reported and broadly circulated everywhere in Asia, where – except for the Philippines and East Timor – Catholics are a small minority.
In his eight-year-long pontificate as the head of the Catholic Church, Benedict XVI has taken sensible steps in Asia: he engaged in preserving the unity of the Catholic community as well as in defending religious freedom for everybody – not only for Christians.
Benedict XVI made clear since the beginning of his pontificate that what can be called the “Chinese file” would have been a priority. After a Polish pope seen by Chinese officials as a major player in the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Benedict XVI tried to make progress on the Chinese issue. Rome was well aware that the rift in the Catholic community of continental China between “official” and “clandestine” Christians harmed not only the unity of the Church in China but also the evangelization of a people and a society disrupted by extremely quick changes.
The last letter from a Pope to China and Chinese Catholics dated back to Pius XII and the early days ofMao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party’s seizure of power (Cupimus Imprimis, 1952 and Ad Sinarum Gentem, 1954). The letter addressed by Benedict XVI “to the bishops, priests, consecrated persons, and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China” is a milestone. Besides giving some form of recognition to the People’s Republic of China (diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing are not yet in place), the letter is a clear and informative reminder of the principles which form the basis of the Catholic belief and of the Church’s functioning. It notably explains the incompatibility of Catholic law with “some institutions” established by Chinese authorities, namely the Patriotic Association and the “official” bishops’ conference. Communion in the church in China – on the other hand – depends on whether the groups composing it will reconcile. With regard to Chinese secular authorities, the pope reaffirms his willingness to engage in a respectful and constructive dialogue with them.
Despite both the road map in this letter and the establishment of a Commission on China in the Vatican, the “Chinese file” has not advanced significantly. On a key subject – the appointment of Chinese bishops – Beijing actually accepted some appointments in agreement with the Holy See but also “forced” some others, leading the pope to excommunicate many bishops ordained without his consent. From a diplomatic point of view, in November 2007, the visit of Mgr. Parolin, under-secretary for Relations with States in the Secretariat of State, was noticed because it was the first time that such a high-level Vatican diplomatic delegation had been sent to China. Nevertheless, it had no future, since it lacked an adequate response from Beijing.
Some people within the Church in China– for instance the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai – have given true examples of unity and courage, others (dubbed as “opportunists” by Mgr. Hon Tai-Fai, Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) have clearly played Beijing’s divisive game, meant to weaken the catholic community. As for the Chinese regime itself, to date it has given no clues that it is ready to reconsider its policies regarding religious beliefs: thus keeping religions dependent on political power.
In his traditional urbi et orbi message last Christmas, Benedict XVI did not hesitate to send – quite an unusual move, or at least unusual enough to be noticed – a direct message for religious freedom in China: “May the King of Peace turn his gaze to the new leaders of the People’s Republic of China for the high task which awaits them. I express my hope that, in fulfilling this task, they will esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each, in such a way that they can help to build a fraternal society for the benefit of that noble People and of the whole world”. Should the Chinese officials that were put in place by the 18th Chinese Communist Party congress hear this call, the Holy See has already invited Beijing “to think about a new path for dialogue.” In October 2012, Cardinal Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples proposed to set up a “high level commission” between the Holy See and China. Up to this date, Beijing has given no answer.
Vietnam, to build a fair and fraternal society
Mgr. Pierre Nguyên Van Kham, auxiliary bishop of Saigon, made the following statements about the influence Benedict XVI had on the recent development of the Church’s life in Vietnam, “The Holy Father Benedict XVI strengthened the links between the Holy See and the government of Vietnam. Benedict XVI has also sketched for the community of the people of God in Vietnam a specific orientation for Christian life: being both true disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and good citizens contributing to build a fair and fraternal society.”
Establishing diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Vietnam was already among the goals of the previous pontiff. Since the beginning of his pontificate, Benedict XVI took this into account. He made direct reference to the matter during his first meeting with foreign diplomats after his election. In a context that clearly showed that he was talking about Vietnam, he stated, “Having appreciated these gestures [i.e. the presence of a delegation when he was elected] today I would like to thank them and to address a respectful greeting to the civil authorities of those countries”. A little later, from 27 June to 2 July 2005, a delegation of the Vietnam government was warmly welcomed by many senior Holy See officials. The most evident signal of this rapprochement was undoubtedly the meeting – in the Vatican – of PM Nguyên Tân Dung with Benedict XVI, in January 2007. On this occasion, the Holy See stated that it was ready to establish diplomatic relations. On the following 1 February, however, the spokesperson of the Vietnamese government specified that the head of government had simply taken note of this statement.
This first ‘summit’ was followed by three rounds of negotiations between the parties, convening in what was called ‘the Holy See-Vietnam joint working group’ on February 2009, June 2010, and February 2012. In the second meeting, the parties agreed on naming a non-resident papal representative in Vietnam. Mgr. Leopoldo Girelli, papal nuncio in Singapore, was chosen by the pope in January 2011 to hold the post. During his first visit to Vietnam, the papal representative sent his credentials to the Bishops’ Conference, not directly to the government, acting as a papal ambassador to the Church of Vietnam.
Full diplomatic relations, therefore, are yet to come, even if the PM’s 2007 visit to the pope was followed by that of the head of State and, last January, by that of the Communist party secretary-general.
There is still debate in the catholic community on how to deal with the communist regime. Opinions differ among bishops. During the ad limina visit of the Vietnamese bishops, Benedict XVI gave them a course of action; on 27 June 2009, he said, “The Church invites all her members to be committed loyally to the growth of all, and to the building of a just and equitable society in the spirit of solidarity. She does not intend to usurp the place of national leaders or take over the activities of persons, individuals, or groups: she only wishes to carry out her specific mission. But through her members, in a spirit of dialogue and fraternal collaboration, she desires to play her proper role in the life of the nation, at the service of the entire people and the unity of society.”
This invitation to dialogue and cooperation with political powers was interpreted in different ways by Vietnamese Catholics. Mgr Paul Bui Van Doc, in a recent intervention during the latest FABC (Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences) meeting in Vietnam, made “atheistic materialism” a key point in the dialogue of the Church.
Besides China and Vietnam, Benedict XVI closely monitored other ‘files’, notably the one concerning the Church in India. Following the path of his predecessor John Paul II, he confirmed and backed some decisions on the two non-Latin Catholic Churches of India.
The Syro-Malabar Church was made by John Paul II a Major Archiepiscopal Church, and then authorized by John Paul II himself to elect its own bishops. On 24 May 2011 after the death of Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, the Syro-Malabar Church synod elected for the first time its major archbishop, Mar George Alencherry. Two days later Benedict XVI confirmed the election of the now head of the Syro-Malabar Church of the Eastern rite.
Along the same lines of reinforcing Catholic Churches of Eastern rite, Benedict XVI made Baselios Mar Cleemis Thottunkal a cardinal; he is the Catholicos of the Syro-Malankara Church and is the first bishop of this church to be created cardinal.