ROME –Archbishop Li Shan of Beijing, who leads the government-sponsored bishops’ conference in China, began a five-day visit to Hong Kong this week intended to strengthen ties between the two Churches and to facilitate stronger communication between the Holy See and mainland China.

According to the Sunday Examiner, the official news platform of the Diocese of Hong Kong, Archbishop Li arrived in Hong Kong Nov. 13 and participated in a Vespers service at the diocesan curia after being welcomed by the bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Stephen Chow.

Chow, a Jesuit, was appointed as bishop of Hong Kong in 2021 and received a red hat from Pope Francis on Sept. 30, prior to the month-long Synod of Bishops on Synodality in October.

While at the curia, Li and Chow exchanged gifts, with Li offering a stained-glass image of Venerable Matteo Ricci, and Chow gifting an image of Saints Peter and Paul painted on a white wooden panel with a three-dimensional relief effect on the halos above the two saints, as well as on other symbols.

Li, according to the Examiner, is slated to visit several diocesan departments during his visit, including the Holy Spirit Seminary and various educational organizations.

His visit, announced earlier this month, comes after a similar visit that Chow made to mainland China earlier in April.

In a brief statement on Li’s visit, the Diocese of Hong Kong said that in accepting an invitation from Chow, Li Shan will make a 5-day visit to Hong Kong beginning Nov. 15 and that “during this reciprocal visit, Archbishop Li will meet with the Bishop of the Diocese of Hong Kong and different diocesan offices to promote exchanges and interactions between the two dioceses.”

Li is president of the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which has transferred and appointed bishops without Rome’s approval, despite a controversial 2018 agreement on episcopal appointments.

His visit to Hong Kong marks the latest in a series of steps taken by Chow and Vatican officials to bolster ties between mainland China and the Church abroad.

Since his appointment as bishop of Hong Kong, Chow has voiced a desire for the diocese to be a “bridge-building” Church, promoting cordial exchanges between Rome and the state-run Church on the mainland.

To this end, he made a five-day visit to Beijing from April 17-21 to meet with Church officials and to visit diocesan projects, marking 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.

In 2018 the Vatican and the China’s Communist government signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops aimed at unifying the official, government-sanctioned Church and the so-called “underground” Church loyal to Rome.

While that deal has been violated by Chinese authorities, Pope Francis nevertheless has gone to great lengths to reach out, praising them publicly and sending clear messages of reassurance during his Aug. 31-Sept. 4 visit to Mongolia.

In July, when the Vatican announced its decision to formalize the unauthorized transfer of a Chinese bishop to the diocese of Shanghai, Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin released an interview with Vatican News, the Vatican’s state-run media platform, suggesting that an official liaison office be established in Beijing to enhance contact and mutual collaboration.

During last month’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality, two bishops from mainland China participated in the first part of the gathering but left roughly halfway through, due to what the Vatican said were pastoral needs in their dioceses.

Speaking to media after a Thanksgiving Mass for his elevation as a cardinal earlier this month, Chow voiced hope that Li’s visit would lead to greater mutual understanding and stronger human connections between the two Churches.

“The mission assigned to me by the pope is to improve communication. It does not mean that there is any hostility between the two sides, absolutely not, but that we need to listen more,” he said, saying, “It is possible for certain misunderstandings to arise as a result of assumptions on both sides.”

“Both you and I will have assumptions when we communicate with each other … So when we have more chances to listen more carefully, the assumptions will not affect us,” he said.

Referring to the October Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which stressed the importance of listening, Chow said the synod revealed that “how to listen is also something to be learned in the Church.”

“We are not only a preaching Church, but also a listening Church. It is hoped that between China and the Vatican, there will be more mutual listening for better communications,” he said.

Chow said the aim of Li’s visit was for him to obtain a greater understanding of the Diocese of Hong Kong, and that a big part of the visit would focus on educational institutions and the life of seminarians. He said he had a positive experience meeting with seminarians during his own visit to Beijing in April.

“It is important that we are connected with the Church in China and the Beijing diocese,” he said, saying he felt a strong human connection while in Beijing.

“Everything starts with humanity first, not by structure or by policy, [but] human connection. And this time when Archbishop Li Shan comes down to Hong Kong, that’s also confirming the human connection,” he said, adding, “With that connection, we can walk together.”

“We can talk about how to strengthen the structure, how to make some policy, and even internal policy in the long term,” Chow said, voicing hope that Li’s visit would above all help both Churches to be better witnesses to God’s love, which he insisted is not an abstract concept, but the remedy for problems.

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