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ROME – In some of his most comprehensive remarks following a recent visit to Beijing, Hong Kong’s Jesuit Bishop Stephen Chow has said he does not believe the Vatican’s deal with China on episcopal appointments has collapsed, despite several recent violations by Chinese authorities.
He also spoke about perceptions of Pope Francis within China and stressed Hong Kong’s role as a “bridge church” between the west and China, saying patient, and, at times, protracted dialogue is necessary despite hiccups and criticism, as the alternative is to do nothing.
Speaking to Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit-run magazine La Civiltà Cattolica shortly after his April 17-21 visit to Beijing, Chow said he viewed the trip as “a bridging one on the diocese level, between Beijing and Hong Kong.”
An official channel of communication has already been opened on the state level through the Vatican and China’s 2018 provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops, which has twice been renewed, but the trip to Beijing helped to solidify relations on another level, Chow said.
He said the visit helped form a personal connection between himself and the Beijing diocese, and also served to rekindle collaboration in various areas, which, he said, “is earnestly desired by both sides,” and “gives us hope and determination to work together.”
Asked about recent violations of the provisional agreement by Chinese authorities, who in the past few months have transferred and appointed bishops without Rome’s knowledge or consent, Chow argued that “the agreement is not dead, as some seem to have suggested.”
Chow blamed a lack of communication for the violations, saying, “discrepancies in understanding between the two sides on the assignment of bishops to other dioceses could be a factor requiring better understanding.”
“Hence, more regular and in-depth dialogue could help minimize confusion in the future,” he said, noting that roughly a third of Chinese dioceses are still without a bishop.
Last month Chow made a five-day visit to Beijing after being invited by Beijing’s Bishop Joseph Li Shan, who is also head of the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). He was joined by Hong Kong auxiliary bishop Joseph Ha and the diocesan vicar general, Father Peter Choy, as well as Chow’s personal assistant.
The visit marked a significant milestone, as it was the first time a Hong Kong bishop traveled to Beijing since 1985, when Hong Kong was still a British colony.
For decades, Hong Kong has been a Catholic stronghold on the edge of mainland China, where Catholics and members of other religions have at times faced persecution under the officially atheist Chinese Communist Party rule.
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The Vatican’s 2018 provisional agreement with Chinese authorities on episcopal appointments, which has been harshly criticized by both civil leaders and prominent Catholic prelates who argue that it is “selling out” Chinese Catholics who’ve faced persecution by the Chinese Communist Party, was struck in a bid to end a longstanding division between an underground flock loyal to Rome and an official state-backed church.
Though in place for four years, that agreement has been shrouded in doubt in recent months after Chinese authorities twice publicly violated its terms by appointing or transferring bishops without the Vatican’s permission.
Last November Bishop John Peng Weizhao was installed as an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Jiangxi, an ecclesiastic territory recognized by Chinese authorities, but not by the Vatican.
Peng Weizhao was appointed to the papally-recognized Diocese of Yujiang by Pope Francis in 2014, four years before the 2018 agreement, but his transfer to Jiangxi was made without prior consultation or permission from the Vatican.
In April, prior to Chow’s visit, Chinese authorities made a similar move when Bishop Shen Bin, leader of the nearby Diocese of Haimen (Jiangsu) and head of the state-backed Council of Chinese Bishops, was installed as the new bishop of Shanghai without prior the Vatican’s prior knowledge or approval.
While the Vatican hit back publicly against Weizhao’s appointment, they were largely silent about Shen’s transfer.
RELATED: Vatican mum on Chinese bishop’s transfer without approval
In his conversation with Spadaro, Chow said he would not describe his trip to Beijing as “historic,” as some have said, but referred to it as a continuation of efforts made by his predecessor.
“As I have mentioned on a number of occasions, our diocese was missioned by the late Pope John Paul II to be a ‘Bridge Church,’” he said, noting that the image of a bridge “was first mentioned by the Venerable Matteo Ricci,” whose tomb he visited during his trip to Beijing.
Asked about the challenges involved in being a “bridge church” in today’s context, Chow said, “being a bridge is not romantic.”
“If a bridge is to serve its intended purpose, people will have to walk over it and cars will have to roll over it,” he said, saying the main challenge “is to face attacks and criticisms coming from different sides.”
Noting that some argue that the church’s intentions and concerns are being compromised by efforts at dialogue in the bride-building process, Chow said he understands these concerns “with empathy,” but believes the dialogue is necessary.
“The alternative is to do nothing and maintain the status quo, without any chance for mutual listening and understanding, but upholding deep distrust and hurtful actions against their perceived evil ones,” he said.
Right now, the greatest challenge, he said, “is to connect the different and opposite parties, to help them see each other as human persons desiring to be heard and understood … [to] help them listen to the other parties with respect and empathy, and hopefully to bring healing in them, and/or to foster collaboration.”
Chow also touched on perceptions of Pope Francis in China, saying the pope is generally honored and appreciated by the faithful.
When it comes to the bishops, Chow said that those he met during his Beijing visit, “are positive toward him. But for those who are against the provisional agreement, they appear to be rather negative toward Pope Francis.”
“There are no statistics on the spread of the likes and dislikes, but from what I have seen and read, together with the attitude of the Catholics whom I have encountered on the trip, I would say a large majority of the Catholics in China are loyal to Pope Francis, and they hope that the provisional agreement will bring desirable changes for their Church, including a meeting between Pope Francis and President Xi,” he said.
Chow said the Chinese government also has “much respect” for Pope Francis and are appreciative of his “open-mindedness and inclusiveness.”
“(Pope Francis’s) love for humanity as a whole is seen to coincide with the values espoused by President Xi with his focus on the ‘Community of Common Destin’ of humankind,” he said, noting that Francis has often voiced his affection for the Chinese people and his desire to visit China.
“It should not be surprising that the Chinese government would also like to see that realized. Let us pray that this will happen not just for Pope Francis or China, but for the world,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen