A special envoy of Pope Francis said on Tuesday the Vatican would improve its agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops, to help reunite the official and underground Catholic churches in mainland China.
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the prefect of the church’s Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, said on a visit to Hong Kong the world must be patient and positive about the reintegration of the churches.
“The agreement is provisional only and we will improve it in the future,” Filoni said, after celebrating mass at a new chapel at the Caritas Institute of Higher Education in Tiu Keng Leng.
The cardinal’s remark came two days after Bishop Paul Meng Qinglu, the deputy chairman of Beijing-loyalist group the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, said the agreement reached by China and the Vatican in September would be reviewed in two years.
Under that agreement, Beijing would for the first time recognise the Pope as the supreme leader of the Catholic Church, and the Vatican would have one month to decide if it would approve a bishop candidate recommended by the association.
Although both sides praised the agreement as a breakthrough, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong at the time called the deal a “complete sell-out”. Zen said underground churches that had been loyal to the Vatican were increasingly suppressed by the Chinese government.
But Filoni, a 72-year-old Vatican expert on China and the Middle East, said progress had been made.
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“The church in China is one church,” he said on Tuesday. “In the past there was an underground [church]. Now, they are being united.”
The cardinal did not provide details. At present, the Chinese government considers unofficial churches illegal. The Pew Centre, a US think tank, estimated in 2011 that there were 9 million Catholics in mainland China.
“The church in China will be no different from all the churches in the world. In many places, the churches are working and suffering. China will be no different,” said Filoni. “Protection must be done by you all, and the Pope. We don’t abandon anyone.”
He emphasised the importance of patience as the churches “integrate themselves”.
After 70 years of division, you cannot expect a solution to the problems in one day. If you have a deep wound in your body, do you expect it to heal in one day?
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples
“After 70 years of division, you cannot expect a solution to the problems in one day. If you have a deep wound in your body, do you expect it to heal in one day?” he said.
Filoni did not offer a view on who should be Hong Kong’s next bishop, which was undecided after Michael Yeung Ming-cheung died in January.
The cardinal was joined at the Caritas Institute by Reverend Peter Choy Wai-man, considered a popular candidate for bishop, and Reverend Joseph Ha Chi-shing, who was appointed auxiliary bishop.
After mass on Tuesday, Filoni visited the Holy Spirit Seminary in Aberdeen, where Choy served as president. The Vatican envoy planned to leave for Rome on Wednesday, wrapping up a week in Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong.
Zen, in a Facebook post published on Tuesday evening, questioned Filoni’s “unbelievable trust” in the Chinese government.
“The most unbelievable part is that we are asked to trust the government,” Zen wrote. “Does Rome not know how the government has intensified its oppression on the churches?”
Zen again criticised the agreement between Beijing and Vatican as “cooperation between the opportunists and the government” and a “fall on the knees”.
“The Vatican today is increasingly weak and has lost its dignity in front of the government. What more can the followers in China do? They can’t even survive yet the Vatican continues to burden them [with] the responsibility to choose a good bishop and to be the society’s conscience. Sometimes I am compelled to ask: which planet do our leaders in Rome come from? ... Can’t they hear the wailing and despair across the land?” he wrote.
Zen said though he was denounced by Filoni for “rowing the boat to a different direction”, he would continue to advise the pope. “Otherwise we would become some useless, silent dogs.”
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