The surveillance cameras pointing at the entrance of the humble three-story building in eastern China are not enough to stop daily mass from being held at Father Matthew’s home.
Hope and fear: the plight of underground Catholics as Vatican-Beijing deal looms
The priest, who spent decades in jail on account of his faith, has no assistants and uses a dining table in lieu of a proper altar.
A picture of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns hangs on the wall, along with other religious paintings and statues, overlooking the congregation of 40 – mainly elderly – people.
They sit on stools and kneel on mats to pray and receive communion just as they have for the last 30 years.
But soon this will all come to an end.
Father Matthew – not his real name – is planning to retire in silence after the news broke in January that underground bishops Zhuang Jianjian and Guo Xijin, both appointed by the Vatican, had been ordered by the Roman Catholic Church to make way for two bishops supported by the Communist authorities in defiance of the Church’s own long-standing teachings.
The arrangement is part of a series of quiet negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing, which aim to reach a formal agreement on how bishops will be appointed in China in the future.
Church and state
The state wants religious activities to be consistent with the official socialist ideology.
In 1957, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was established to make sure priests and bishops toed the Communist Party line. To date, China’s Bishop Conference has selected and independently appointed bishops – sometimes without the Pope’s approval.
But on Wednesday Bishop Guo Jincai, secretary-general of the Beijing-sanctioned Bishops Conference, told state-owned tabloid Global Times that the negotiations had reached their “final stages.”
“If everything goes right, the deal could be signed as early as the end of this month,” he said. “The timing depends on details of the deal or technical issues.”
But Father Chang Sang-loy, a Hong-Kong-based priest with knowledge of the talks, warned that if things could not be finalized by Easter, “we might need to wait until June to see if a deal can be reached.”
Dealing with deities
The groundbreaking deal would represent a historic development after decades of hostility between the two sides.
Any deal is expected to hinge on whether Beijing will allow the Pope to have a final say over the appointment of bishops – something that must be worked out before ties can be normalized.
And even if agreement on that matter is reached, there are other hurdles, including:
- While the Pope is expected to have final say over appointing bishops, the pool of candidates is expected to be controlled by Beijing. Who will have ultimate authority in the case of a dispute?
- Will underground churches be forced to stop holding unauthorized gatherings and join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association?
- Will Beijing insist on keeping tight control over churches?
- Will Beijing release religious leaders who have been jailed, disappeared or are incommunicado?
Observers are watching closely to see whether the deal will promote mutual respect and understanding, improve the situation of the 30 or so underground bishops, and enhance the religious freedoms of the mainland’s estimated 10 million Catholics.
Earlier this month Fang Jianping, a high-ranking member of the state-approved Catholic Church, told reporters that he welcomed the “historic breakthrough in the history of China and the Vatican”.
“There shouldn’t be any obstacles now. Talks and dialogue must be continued to dissolve conflicts and build consensus,” Fang said.
But the Vatican’s shift in policy has been fiercely criticized. One of the most outspoken opponents of the move is Hong Kong-based Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun who called it a “suicide deal” and accused the Church of “selling out” the underground worshippers who had endured years of oppression for staying loyal to the Pope after Beijing cut ties with the Vatican in 1951.
Earlier this week human rights groups said Guo, one of the underground bishops, had been detained for a day.
Today, about 60% of mainland Catholics worship in state-sanctioned churches. Many, especially the younger ones, are oblivious to the rift between Beijing and Rome.
Others have been left confused by recent developments. They believe reconciliation between the Church and an atheist government, which has a long history of closing down churches and prosecuting priests, is a bad move.
According to Father Pedro, who leads a state-approved church, the latest U-turn from the Vatican came as a huge shock to Chinese Catholics.
“Quite a number of underground parishioners who would never walk into an official church approached us recently asking if the Vatican is really giving up on legitimate underground bishops for illicit ones. No one can wrap their head around the Vatican’s rationale,” he said.
Some Chinese Catholics say making a bad move is better than no move at all. There are also those who will submit to the Pope’s commands even though they do not understand his thinking.
“We might fail to see the rationale for now, but we must trust that the Holy Father has divine guidance,” said a 56-year-old Catholic from an underground church in Shanghai.
However, for people like Father Matthew, the detente is too much to take.
The veteran priest has been toughened by three decades in jail, but the latest news truly broke his heart.
“Not a moment was regretted since I’ve pledged my life to the Virgin Mary… but if [former] Pope Benedict XVI had not retired, none of this would have happened,” he said.
The priest and his family members have together spent over 150 years in prison for standing by their faith.
“I’m disappointed but nothing else can be done. I plan to just retreat quietly,” he said.
The Vatican and the Chinese government may soon reach an agreement, paving the way for resumption of relations – at the cost of some of the Church’s most loyal adherents.