China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2007/Jan

2006: Neither the best nor the worst of years

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … It was as clear as crystal … that things in general were settled forever.” These opening lines of Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities, may have described both London and Paris in 1775, but they certainly did not fit either Beijing or Hong Kong in 2006. No one in mainland China would return to the nightmare years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), but air pollution and food safety scares have worsened in Hong Kong also.

The main theme in the Chinese media last year was “a harmonious society” with emphasis on improving life for the rural majority. Corruption remained a headache, but a number of high-ranking officials were arrested. Class struggle has been dumped into the rubbish bin of history, and the government has admitted that religion can play a positive role in promoting social harmony.

In April the World Buddhist Forum met in China with the theme, A More Harmonious World Begins in the Mind. Although carefully monitored, more non-government organizations (NGOs) began to fill a few of the gaps in the social welfare system. Thus the Catholic Social Service Centre of Shijiazhuang in Hebei (河北石家莊) became the first Catholic NGO to be registered by the Chinese government.

Ten bishops go to their heavenly reward

As named earlier in this newspaper, a total of 10 bishops died during 2006. China has over 350 million cigarettes smokers, including two-thirds of the men, so it is safe to say that several of those bishops smoked. Yet, their average age at death was 86, ranging in age from 78 to 94. What was their secret to long life? They had to be tough to survive several years or longer in labour camps. When they were released they were skin and bones from hard labour and an almost totally vegetarian diet. That is the hard way to lower one’s cholesterol.

They survived because they kept praying. Prisoners who worried got ulcers, while those who were angry got high blood pressure and strokes, but those 10 bishops kept their faith and sometimes even a sense of humor during the worst of times.

A few visits to churches and convents in mainland China are enough to teach an outsider how difficult life was there, in contrast with how easy it is to be a Catholic Christian in another part of the world.

After the worst of times, the Church in China has come back from the dead. So in other countries, Churches which are being plagued by scandals, lawsuits, vocation crises and reduced Mass attendance, still have hope for better days.

Five new, young bishops

Five new bishops were ordained at an average age of 40. They are both middle-aged and also young enough to be the grandsons of the departed bishops. Seminarians and convents were closed for a generation. While a few old veterans remain, by the end of 2006 priests and sisters had essentially completed the transition to a much younger membership, like parents succeeding their revered great-grandparents.

The scarcity of vocations in the intermediate years has been a strain. The wider society has been changing so fast that there is a wide gap between the middle-aged and the teens. Most vocations come from the villages, while millions of new migrants to the cities are being hit hard by culture shock. This is not the best of times to transmit the core cultural value of respect for elders. If the state-sponsored revival of Confucianism cannot bridge the generation gap and fill the moral vacuum, then maybe the Holy Spirit will.

Problems with some ordinations

Yet only two of the five young priests had approval from the Holy See to be ordained bishops. Two illegitimate ordinations two weeks apart created more friction between China and the Vatican (Sunday Examiner, 14 May 2006). Despite rumors of an impending dozen or more new bishops, there was a lull of over six months.

Then on short notice and amid reports of severe pressure on the consecrating bishops, the official Church proceeded with yet another ordination. Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun promptly called this an attack on harmony in Chinese society and a few days later, on December 3, the Vatican deplored both the strong-arm tactics and the violation of Canon Law (Sunday Examiner, 10 December 2006). Chinese religious authorities said they did not understand the fuss. The deadlock continues. Any attempt by the Vatican to protest interference in internal Church affairs is denounced by Beijing as interfering in the internal affairs of China. Those who have read history will remember the protracted Lay Investiture Controversy over who had the right to appoint bishops.

For those who are vague about Europe during the Middle Ages, consider this analogy: A world-class corporation sets up shop in China. After some time, a local-born Chinese is ready to become a provincial or even the national manager. Then the government intervenes and says, “Since this is China, we, not corporate headquarters overseas, will select the Chinese for the post.” The top officials in world headquarters would not be amused. Neither is the Vatican.

Looking ahead to 2007, it is safe to predict that eight, nine or 10 elderly bishops will leave this world. That will create even more vacant sees and a strong reason (or a strong excuse) for new bishops to fill the empty chairs, with or without Vatican approval. It looks like more conflict and big storms ahead. No one is predicting an early resolution of this impasse.

A Cardinal for Hong Kong, and for China

In Hong Kong, the big news in 2006 for Catholics was the elevation in March of Bishop Joseph Zen to the College of Cardinals as the fifth Chinese cardinal in history. The 15 new cardinals received their red hats in Rome from Pope Benedict XVI on March 24. Hundreds of Hong Kong Catholics flew there for the consistory. Mainland Catholics viewed the promotion with satisfaction, seeing it as an honor to Chinese everywhere. But they could not celebrate too loudly, for fear of being labelled anti-patriotic. Despite what Pope John Paul II said several times, some people in the government still see a contradiction between being “truly Catholic and authentically Chinese.”

Critical words between various mainland officials and the new cardinal continued throughout 2006. But compared to the hostile polemics which New China directed against popes, cardinals and all believers in an earlier era, the language has mellowed. The Catholic Church moved from anathema to dialogue decades ago.

Inside China, more positive evaluations were given in 2006 to the role of religion in promoting harmony and law-abiding citizens than in any previous year. Yet as December ended, nine unofficial priests in Hebei were arrested. Is this the best of times, or the worst of times?

It is better to say somewhere in between, which is cold comfort for those who still run the risk of fines and imprisonment for their religious activities.

It’s too early to say

In the 1960s, someone asked premier, Zhou Enlai (周恩來), “What do you think of the French Revolution?” Sensing a political trap disguised as a history question about 1789, Zhou wisely answered, “It is too early to say.” It is too early for us to evaluate 2006. Finding news of hope and news of despair about the Church in China in the stories of last year is easy. Seeing the big picture is hard. We do not have a crystal ball.

Yet what is as clear as crystal is that things in general are not settled forever. Migration to the cities, economic growth, an aging population, a spiritual vacuum, the consumer society, sustainable growth and looming climate change, are all set to continue with even greater impact, not only in China but also around the world, in the coming years. God knows what will happen. For atheists, that’s a scary thought. The Chinese government still issues new regulations and still talks of “strengthening control” over diverse aspects of society and the economy.

In 1789, only a few people foresaw a revolution in France. Certainly no one suspected how bloody it would be. Yet everyone was sure that the rivalry between England and France would continue until the end of the world. Those two powers had been at war off and on since the 14th century and had bitter memories of more than 450 years of hostility. However, after 1815, they never fired a shot in anger at each other again. Despite rivalry on the soccer field and in business, England and France are friends and allies. Peace on earth is possible, and blessed are the peacemakers.

Please continue to pray

As 2007 begins, no one can see a solution to the Sino-Holy See deadlock. This July will mark the golden anniversary of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and in April 2008, it will be 50 years since the consecration of the first Chinese bishop without the approval of the Holy See. For those who expect the end of the world to come soon, it is foolish to work for a resolution of this impasse. We do not have that much time left.

However, Marxists say that the human race is still in its infancy; we have millions of years ahead of us. Pope Paul VI said, “Peace will be the final word of history.” Some exchange of messages between Rome and Beijing will continue in this new year. Please pray for the peace and stability of those two cities, and also for harmony in Hong Kong and in Jerusalem.