China's Underground Church Mourns a Pope Who Never Visited

July 7, 2008 - 8:16 PM

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Pope John Paul II traveled widely, even visiting communist bastions such as Cuba in 1998 and his native Poland in 1979. But although he wanted to, he never made it to China, which has one of the largest Catholic communities in Asia.

Most of China's estimated 12-15 million Catholics worship underground, and many leaders have been imprisoned.

China has no diplomatic relations with the Vatican, which recognizes Taiwan.

Beijing does not recognize the Roman Catholic Church, but has instead instituted its own "patriotic" Catholic organization, which does not recognize the pope's authority and appoints its own bishops.

Millions of Catholics remain loyal to the Vatican, however, and meet in secret.

As recently as last week, a Chinese Catholic campaign group in the U.S. announced that three more underground Catholic priests had been arrested. In Hebei province alone - home to the largest Catholic community - five underground bishops and 24 priests were now in jail, the Cardinal Kung Foundation said.

During his tenure, Pope John Paul II ordained bishops for the Chinese church in secret, for their safety and for that of their underground congregations.

Beijing refused to allow the pope to visit, and made official recognition of the Vatican contingent on several things.

The Vatican would need to apologize for past wrongs attributed to Catholic missionaries, and stop interfering in China's "domestic" affairs - a reference both to the appointment of bishops and to recognition of Taiwan.

Beijing regards the island as a rebel province and refuses to have diplomatic ties with any country that recognizes Taiwan.

In late 2001, the pope appeared to tackle the first of these hurdles when he apologized publicly for "errors" made by some Catholic missionaries in China during the colonial era.

The statement triggered speculation that Beijing and the Vatican were close to an agreement to normalize ties.

An anxious Taiwan pointed out that religious persecution was still rife in China. In the end no agreement was reached.

On Sunday, both the Chinese foreign ministry and the officially-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association sent messages of condolence to the Vatican.

Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao also used the opportunity to say Beijing was willing to improve relations with the Vatican if it ended diplomatic recognition for Taiwan and pledged not to interfere in China's internal affairs - including intervention under religious pretexts.

In Taipei, foreign affairs ministry spokesman Michel Lu said Taiwan did not believe its ties with the Vatican were in jeopardy.

"It is clear that there are some very basic factors that stand in the way of China and the Vatican ever being able to establish normal diplomatic relations," Lu said. "There are things that the Vatican wouldn't reasonably be able to accept, such as China's lack of religious freedom."

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and his vice-president expressed sadness over the death of a man they called a great religious leader.

Visit thwarted


Hong Kong's Catholic leader, Bishop Joseph Zen, told reporters John Paul II had had a deep desire to visit China.

But even a visit to nominally autonomous Hong Kong was ruled out by Beijing in 1999, when the pope wanted to visit the territory for a bishops' synod.

"We tried our best, but the answer [from the Chinese government] was no," said Zen, who has clashed with Beijing in the past over religious freedom issues.

There are a quarter of a million Catholics in Hong Kong, including such high-profile figures as its acting chief executive, Donald Tsang, and its best known pro-democracy advocate, Martin Lee.

Joseph Kung of the Connecticut-based Cardinal Kung Foundation said news of the pope's death had reached China's underground church, where masses, prayers and novenas were said on Sunday.

He quoted one priest as saying that John Paul II had never forgotten the persecuted church in China.

"To us in the underground Church, Pope John Paul II's death is not only the death of our pontiff, but also the loss of a great father and friend of Roman Catholics in China," Kung said. "He loved the underground Church in China from the very beginning of his pontificate."

The foundation is named for Cardinal Kung Pin-Mei, whom the pope named a cardinal in secret in 1979 while he was serving a life sentence. After decades in jail and under house arrest, the cardinal was eventually allowed to travel to the U.S. in 1987 for medical treatment, and died in 2000 aged 98.

The pope's passing was also mourned in India, whose Catholic community is a tiny majority in the world's second most populous country, but nonetheless about 17 million-strong.

John Paul II visited India in 1986 and 1999, and one of the group of cardinals frequently mentioned as a possible candidate to succeed him is an Indian, Archbishop of Bombay Ivan Dias.

India's titular president, Abdul Kalam, said he was "deeply saddened" to hear of the death of "a church leader and a statesman who throughout his life worked for human dignity and freedom and for the needy and oppressed."

The pope visited East Timor in 1989, bringing encouragement there to Catholics under Indonesian occupation and urging bishops to speak out against rights abuses. Although it would be another 13 years before the territory won its independence, the Catholic Church played a prominent role in the campaign to end Indonesian rule.

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