Pope’s letter to Catholics in China, and everywhere

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, speaks to members of the media during a news conference in Hong Kong Sept. 26 concerning Pope Francis’ landmark agreement with China over bishop nominations.
CNS photo/Jerome Favre, EPA

Regardless of how much or little you know about the current controversy in China surrounding the recognition of Catholic bishops and the tense situation with the government there, I urge everyone to read Pope Francis’ pastoral letter on the recent developments, which was issued on Sept. 26. It is, after all, addressed both to the Catholics in China and “to the Universal Church.”

In terms of the percentage of the overall population, Pope Francis is correct in referring to Chinese Catholics as a “small flock” compared to American or European Christians. Yet, the vast number of inhabitants in the People’s Republic result in this statistically tiny sliver equaling roughly 10 million people. For some perspective, historians think the total number of Christians on earth during the great councils of the early church was probably less than this.

Voices in the Vatican have emphasized that the new Provisional Agreement with China is a pastoral and not political initiative. It’s undeniable that both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI prioritized the cultivation of trust in these conversations, from which these new fruits have blossomed.

Without denying that there have been skeptics and critics of the current iteration of the approach (most notably Cardinal Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong), the pope’s recent letter strives to pave the way for a greater inculturation of the Gospel on Chinese soil. One of the most famous historical examples of this effort was that of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), whom the pope cites explicitly in the letter. The Italian priest and scientist Ricci famously learned the language and cultures of the “Dragon Kingdom” so as to bear more effective evangelical witness to the Chinese people, both aristocratic and humble alike.

Most striking to me in the recent letter was the following sentiment: “All Christians, none excluded, must now offer gestures of reconciliation and communion. … Catholics ought to make a prophetic and constructive contribution born of their faith in the Kingdom of God. At times, this may also require of them the effort to offer a word of criticism, not out of sterile opposition, but for the sake of building a society that is more just, humane and respectful of the dignity of each person.”

Though our own political and ecclesial divisions here in recent months are qualitatively different from those rending the population of China, can we as Christians in this country claim to be exhibiting the demeanor and valuing the practical embodiment of the traits described in this plea? Are we locked into patterns of “sterile opposition” with one another that has become unmoored from what we can all hopefully agree is the goal of building a “more just, humane and respectful” society? Have we become so convinced of our self-righteousness and non-negotiable attitudes that we are absolutely unwilling to dialogue with those with whom we disagree? Do we even claim anymore to love one another as collective members of a common People, a common Assembly (from which we get the word “Church”), a common home on this planet?

It is the Spirit of the God of Surprises who “shows today’s world the path to reconciliation and peace.” I hold out hope that we still actually wish to receive this gift, and will not be contented with the empty cartons of our pre-packaged expectations or the external ornamentation of our own self-assured positions.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.