By Father Jeroom Heyndrickx*
The China interview of Pope Francis must be seen as an integral part of the ongoing Sino-Vatican dialogue. The pope had restarted that dialogue — which had been cut off in 2010 — from the moment he became pope, even though not all his advisers agreed.
From the beginning Pope Francis revealed one of his own characteristics that mark this interview: namely his own strong belief in the need for friendly and frank dialogue.
Dialogue with China yielded its first fruits in 2015 when bishops for Zhouzhi and Anyang dioceses were recognized. Negotiations took place three times: in Rome in 2014, in Beijing last October and in Rome on Jan. 25-26.
No official announcements were made but the two recent rounds of negotiations have produced a positive atmosphere between Beijing and Rome that we have not seen in decades. An important step forward has, apparently, been taken this January in Rome. Only such a context made this China interview with the pope possible.
The interview comes across to me as a strong personal statement by the pope made in the midst of this quietly ongoing process of dialogue between the Vatican and Beijing.
As if he was sitting at the negotiating table, Pope Francis addresses himself to all Chinese, implicitly also to the faithful of the Catholic Church and even to people worldwide. His words are marked by friendship, admiration and empathy for the Chinese people.
He generously shares how he feels about China: “I have great respect” for your … “great culture with an inexhaustible wisdom.” He puts the Chinese people at ease referring to the Catholic Church having the duty to “respect all civilizations. … The church has great potential to receive cultures.”
The pope is aware of China’s own “wounds” and difficult moments in the past; to this he says: “every people must be reconciled with its history as its own path, with its successes and its mistakes … this reconciliation brings much maturity, much growth.”
The interview makes clear that the pope favors closer relations — an encounter — with China: “encounter is achieved through dialogue”, “we must find the way, always through dialogue, there is no other way” He even indirectly addresses a few words to people worldwide who might be afraid of China’s growing influence on the world scene, telling them: “Fear is not a good counselor … I would not be fearful”, “Let us walk together.”
And to those in the church who might be afraid of dialogue with China, he says: “Dialogue does not mean that we end up with a compromise”. Friends in China — Catholics as well as non-Catholics — feel confirmed and encouraged by this friendly attitude of the pope toward their country, culture and people. That’s the feedback we hear.
With this interview and his successful dialogue Pope Francis takes his place among his predecessors who were all pioneers of dialogue with China.
In 1970, Pope Paul VI went to the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization and pleaded in favor of China’s presence in the FAO, instead of Taiwan. Pope John Paul II showed great restraint and kept all doors for dialogue open even in the most dramatic situations as the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square incident.
Pope Benedict XVI wrote a pastoral letter to the church in China, which is a blueprint for dialogue. With the China interview, Pope Francis now takes his place in the gallery of papal pioneers of China dialogue.
Where does it go from here?
So far there has of course not been any official statement from the Vatican nor from Beijing. But already in October, after the negotiations in Beijing, we could observe signals that clearly indicate that progress was being made.
The same is true after the recent round of negotiations in Rome. It seems that some thorny questions have been put aside for the time being and that progress has been made toward an agreement on the way of appointing bishops in the future. The pope is expected to appoint three bishops soon. That is important progress.
But a lot more needs to be achieved: what will happen to the eight illegal bishops among whom three are excommunicated? What about the bishops in prison: James Su Zhimin, Cosmas Shi Enxiang? How will the situation of Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin in Shanghai be resolved? Can we expect more good news during the months to come?
We can only guess. Is it possible that Pope Francis will make a gesture of mercy in the course of 2016 by legitimizing some illegal bishops in China? Again, nothing has been officially stated, but that seems to be quite possible in the logic of this Holy Year of Mercy. Many in China hope for it and if it happens, that would be a real breakthrough.
The old challenge has now become critical and actual: will all stand united behind Pope Francis’ decisions? Catholics — both inside and outside China — are confronted once again with an old challenge: will they be united in following Pope Francis?
Some who had suffered in the past called themselves hard-liners and were opposed to dialogue with Chinese authorities. Anybody knowing what happened in the past will understand their viewpoint. They received much sympathy and support from outside China.
Some of them responded positively to the call for unity and reconciliation in Pope Benedict’s letter. Others did not. But now Pope Francis has continued to walk the line of dialogue and reconciliation as recommended by Benedict because the pastoral situation inside the church in China calls for urgent decisions to appoint bishops.
Decisions apparently have been made. Will all be able to support the decision of the pope? This old challenge is now becoming even more critical than in the past. The “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” in China cannot afford to fail uniting behind the pope at this time.
*Father Jeroom Heyndrickx is the founder of the Taiwan Pastoral Institute and founding director of the Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation at Leuven Catholic University in Belgium. The foundation is devoted to the promotion of a relationship of cooperation with China.