Talks to heal Catholic rift in China gain momentum under Pope Francis

1 min

The pope’s apparent determination to bring the “underground” church out of the shadows has caused some to worry that he might give too much away to China’s hard-line president, Xi Jinping.

Pope Francis has spoken of his admiration for Chinese culture. He has greeted a delegation from China, accepting a silk imprint of an ancient inscription about Christianity. And he had his picture taken with a Chinese bishop in St. Peter’s Square last month.

He appears to be considering more significant action: a grand compromise with China’s Communist leaders to heal the bitter, decades-old rift that has divided generations of Chinese Catholics and prevented the pope from openly exercising authority in the world’s most populous country.

The Vatican says talks are continuing, and much work remains before a deal is done. But Francis’ apparent determination to see a rapprochement with China has caused unease among some who are worried that he might give too much away to the hard-line Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

“Most agree that the two sides must talk,” said a priest in Hebei, a northern province with many “underground” Catholics who reject state oversight.

“But there is the risk that if the pope moves too quickly, the underground priests will feel the church will lose its autonomy,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Some people have sacrificed a lot, and worry that their sacrifice will not be recognized.”

The Communist Party expelled Roman Catholic missionaries after taking power in 1949, condemning them as tools of Western imperialists, and has required Catholics to worship in “patriotic” churches under state oversight. But a third or more of China’s 9 million to 12 million Catholics worship in “underground” congregations that are loyal to the pope and have resisted state control, sometimes enduring persecution and imprisonment.

The Vatican has long dreamed of returning to China, bringing the underground church out of the shadows and healing divisions among Chinese Catholics. Under Francis, negotiations with the Chinese government over reconciliation have gained momentum.

“We need patience, a lot of patience,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, who has overseen talks with China, said this month in Bologna, Italy.

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