The Message of Pope Francis—announced Wednesday morning at the General Audience—begins with a word of encouragement for Chinese Catholics, who, he says, “are daily present” in his prayers. He recalls the words of Jesus, earlier quoted by Benedict XVI in his Letter to the Chinese faithful: “Fear not, little flock” (Lk, 12:32).
Confusion from a flurry of opinions
The Pope immediately goes to the heart of the question:
Of late, many conflicting reports have circulated about the present and, in particular, the future of the Catholic communities in China. I am aware that this flurry of thoughts and opinions may have caused a certain confusion and prompted different reactions in the hearts of many. Some feel doubt and perplexity, while others sense themselves somehow abandoned by the Holy See and anxiously question the value of their sufferings endured out of fidelity to the Successor of Peter. In many others, there prevail positive expectations and reflections inspired by the hope of a more serene future for a fruitful witness to the faith in China.
It is a situation, he emphasizes, “that has become more acute” with the recent signing in Beijing of the Provisional Agreement on the nomination of Bishops.
Admiration for Chinese Catholics, witnesses of the Gospel
Pope Francis expresses his “sincere admiration—which is the admiration of the entire Catholic Church—for the gift of your fidelity, your constancy amid trials, and your firm trust in God’s providence, even when certain situations proved particularly adverse and difficult.” Such “painful experiences,” he says, “are part of the spiritual treasury of the Church in China and of all God’s pilgrim people on earth.” He assures them that “the Lord, through the crucible of our trials, never fails to pour out his consolations upon us and to prepare us for an even greater joy,” and exhorts them to look “to the example of all those faithful laity and pastors who readily offered their ‘good witness’ (cf. 1 Tim 6:13) to the Gospel, even to the sacrifice of their own lives. They showed themselves true friends of God!”
A dialogue begun by John Paul, advanced by Benedict XVI
The Pope clarifies that the Provisional Agreement “is the result of a lengthy and complex institutional dialogue between the Holy See and the Chinese authorities initiated by Saint John Paul II and continued by Pope Benedict XVI. Through this process, the Holy See has desired – and continues to desire – only to attain the Church’s specific spiritual and pastoral aims, namely, to support and advance the preaching of the Gospel, and to reestablish and preserve the full and visible unity of the Catholic community in China.”
Departing with faith, even when the road is unknown
He then shares “a few reflections… for the journey we are called to undertake in this new phase.” Once again quoting Benedict, the Pope explains that it is a journey that “requires time and presupposes the good will of both parties.” Pope Francis pointed to the example of Abraham, who, “called by God… obeyed by setting out for an unknown land that he was to receive as an inheritance, without knowing the path that lay ahead. Had Abraham demanded ideal social and political conditions before leaving his land, perhaps he would never have set out. Instead, he trusted in God and in response to God’s word he left his home and its safety. It was not historical changes that made him put his trust in God; rather, it was his pure faith that brought about a change in history.” Invoking his position as Successor of Peter, Pope Francis says forcefully, “I want to confirm you in this faith (cf. Lk 22:32)… and to ask you to place your trust ever more firmly in the Lord of history and in the Church’s discernment of his will.”
The nomination of Bishops
Pope Francis explains that “it was essential, before all else, to deal with the issue of the appointment of bishops.” He says:
Regrettably, as we know, the recent history of the Catholic Church in China has been marked by deep and painful tensions, hurts and divisions, centred especially on the figure of the bishop as the guardian of the authenticity of the faith and as guarantor of ecclesial communion.
When, in the past, it was presumed to determine the internal life of the Catholic communities, imposing direct control above and beyond the legitimate competence of the state, the phenomenon of clandestinity arose in the Church in China.
Call for reconciliation and expressions of unity
However, the Pope says, he has nonetheless “experienced great consolation in knowing the heartfelt desire of Chinese Catholics to live their faith in full communion with the universal Church and with the Successor of Peter.” This, he says, is true even of Bishops, “who have damaged communion in the Church as a result of weakness and errors, but also, and not infrequently, due to powerful and undue pressure from without.” He assures the faithful that “after carefully examining every individual personal situation, and listening to different points of view, I have devoted much time to reflection and prayer, seeking the true good of the Church in China.” And he forcefully affirms, “Before the Lord and with serenity of judgment, in continuity with the direction set by my immediate predecessors, I have determined to grant reconciliation to the remaining seven ‘official’ bishops ordained without papal mandate and, having lifted every relevant canonical sanction, to readmit them to full ecclesial communion. At the same time, I ask them to express with concrete and visible gestures their restored unity with the Apostolic See and with the Churches spread throughout the world, and to remain faithful despite any difficulties.”
Embracing those who have gone astray
In his Message, Pope Francis now invites Chinese Catholics “to work towards reconciliation,” recalling his own words at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, that “no law or precept can prevent God from once more embracing the son who returns to him admitting that he has done wrong but intending to start his life anew.” In this spirit, he says, “we can initiate an unprecedented process that we hope will help to heal the wounds of the past, restore full communion among all Chinese Catholics.”
Choosing pastors with the heart of Jesus
The Pope explains, that, while the Provisional Agreement is “limited to certain aspects of the Church’s life and necessarily capable of improvement,” it can, nonetheless, “contribute… to writing this new chapter of the Catholic Church in China.” “For the first time,” he says, “the Agreement sets out stable elements of cooperation between the state authorities and the Apostolic See, in the hope of providing the Catholic community with good shepherds.”
In this context, he continues, “the Holy See intends fully to play its own part.” Yet, he says,
an important part also falls to you, the bishops, priests, consecrated men and women, and lay faithful: to join in seeking good candidates capable of taking up in the Church the demanding and important ministry of bishop. It is not a question of appointing functionaries to deal with religious issues, but of finding authentic shepherds according to the heart of Jesus, men committed to working generously in the service of God’s people, especially the poor and the most vulnerable.
The role of Chinese Catholics in society
Speaking about Chinese Catholics’ place in society, Pope Francis says:
On the civil and political level, Chinese Catholics must be good citizens, loving their homeland and serving their country with diligence and honesty, to the best of their ability. On the ethical level, they should be aware that many of their fellow citizens expect from them a greater commitment to the service of the common good and the harmonious growth of society as a whole. In particular, Catholics ought to make a prophetic and constructive contribution born of their faith in the kingdom of God. At times, this may also require of them the effort to offer a word of criticism, not out of sterile opposition, but for the sake of building a society that is more just, humane and respectful of the dignity of each person.
Overcoming opposition in order to evangelize
Pope Francis then addresses Bishops, priests, and consecrated persons, asking them to overcome to “leave behind past conflicts and attempts to pursue our own interests,” in order to “care for the faithful.” He calls on them to “work humbly for reconciliation and unity” and, “with energy and enthusiasm,” to “take up the path of evangelization indicated by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.”
Appeal to young Chinese Catholics
The Pope also speaks to young Chinese Catholics, exhorting them “to cooperate in building the future of your country,” and “to bring, by your enthusiasm, the joy of the Gospel to everyone you meet.” He asks them to open their hearts and minds “to discern the merciful plan of God, who asks us to rise above personal prejudices and conflicts between groups and communities, in order to undertake a courageous fraternal journey in the light of an authentic culture of encounter.”
All Catholics called to be close to the faithful in China
Pope Francis speaks of the “important duty” of all Catholics throughout the world “to accompany our brothers and sisters in China with fervent prayer and fraternal friendship.” He says, “they need to feel that in the journey that now lies ahead, they are not alone.”
Continuing the dialogue with Chinese authorities
Turning then, “with respect” to the leaders of the People’s Republic of China, Pope Francis renews his invitation “to continue, with trust, courage and farsightedness, the dialogue begun some time ago” in order to overcome “past differences, even those of the more recent past,” and to open “a new chapter of more serene and practical cooperation, in the shared conviction that ‘incomprehension [serves] the interests of neither the Chinese people nor the Catholic Church in China’ (Benedict XVI, Letter to Chinese Catholics).” In this way, he says, China and the Holy See will be able to “make efforts to promote the integral development of society by ensuring greater respect for the human person, also in the religious sphere.” The Pope also emphasizes that a “new style of straightforward daily cooperation needs to develop between local authorities and ecclesiastical authorities – bishops, priests and community elders – in order to ensure that pastoral activities take place in an orderly manner, in harmony with the legitimate expectations of the faithful and the decisions of competent authorities.” And he repeats, “The Church in China is not oblivious to Chinese history, nor does she seek any privilege.”
Prayer to Mary
Finally, Pope Francis implores from the Lord the gift of peace, and invites everyone to invoke the maternal protection of the Virgin Mary. His message ends with a prayer:
Mother of Heaven, hear the plea of your children as we humbly call upon your name!
Virgin of Hope, we entrust to you the journey of the faithful in the noble land of China. We ask you to present to the Lord of history the trials and tribulations, the petitions and the hopes of all those who pray to you, O Queen of Heaven!
Mother of the Church, we consecrate to you the present and the future of our families and our communities. Protect and sustain them in fraternal reconciliation and in service to the poor who bless your name, O Queen of Heaven!
Consolation of the Afflicted, we turn to you, for you are the refuge of all who weep amid their trials. Watch over your sons and daughters who praise your name; make them one in bringing the proclamation of the Gospel. Accompany their efforts to build a more fraternal world. Grant that they may bring the joy of forgiveness to all whom they meet, O Queen of Heaven!