Li Bing had waited patiently for over 20 minutes at Beijing’s South Cathedral before a purple-robed priest finally smudged a dark cross on her forehead in celebration of Ash Wednesday.
She is one of millions of members of China’s official Catholic church who are closely watching negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing, aimed at reestablishing ties after nearly 70 years of diplomatic estrangement.
Chinese Catholics are divided between a government-run association, whose clergy are chosen by the atheist ruling Communist Party, and an unofficial church loyal to the Vatican.
While some believe a reconciliation will bridge divisions between the two, others fear concessions to China may backfire on the “underground” devout, many of whom suffered years of persecution for following the Pope.
Most who packed the pews felt far removed from the negotiations.
“International relations have nothing to do with what goes on inside our church,” said an attendee surnamed Zeng. “Everyone is simply here to worship God.”
But Li, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, has long prayed for reestablished ties. Still, she remains conflicted.
“I’ve kept the faith all my life, but I’m worried that in the end I’ll find that I went down the wrong path,” she said, tears spilling down her face.
“Information is very restricted in China so there’s no way to know what’s happening or what to believe.”
‘Wise and foolish’
The Vatican relaunched long-stalled negotiations with Beijing three years ago.
The two sides now seem close to resolving a major obstacle to progress, the question of who gets to designate bishops: China or the Holy See?
Last month a top Vatican diplomat asked two underground bishops, recognised by the Pope, to resign in favour of state-sanctioned prelates — including one who was excommunicated in 2011.
Anthony Clark, an expert on Chinese Catholicism at Whitworth University, deemed the decision “simultaneously wise and foolish.”
While it may endear Rome to Beijing and pave the way for a possible papal visit, it could also upset the country’s roughly 12 million underground Catholics.
Earlier this month Cardinal Joseph Zen, the bishop emeritus of semi-autonomous Hong Kong, accused the Vatican of “selling out” to China.
An open letter by lay Catholics mostly based in Hong Kong expressed concern that the recognition of Beijing-appointed bishops would lead to “confusion and pain, and schism would be created”.
Ka-Lok Chan, one of the letter’s initiators, said signatories hoped for better relations but feared a slippery slope.
“We don’t need to trade with China — this isn’t about market share… What we have at the end of the day is our moral values and moral standing,” he said.
But Francesco Sisci, a specialist in Catholic affairs at Renmin University, believes those concerns are irrelevant.
“The church is not interested in politics. It’s not for human rights, it’s not against human rights,” he said, noting that Jesus had never challenged the Roman government.
“We deal with the Romans, and allow them to crucify if they want to crucify.”
In his view, factionalism is the greatest threat to Chinese Catholics.
“If they don’t solve this problem, the Catholic church is going to disappear,” he said.
“It would be immoral not to engage, because the church here is in need.”
‘Faith cannot be limited’
During Wednesday’s sermon a priest encouraged people to eat less meat and spend less time on their cellphones during the Chinese new year starting Friday.
As the words echoed off the vaulted ceiling, a young priest said he was already dreaming of a papal visit.
But he was saddened that other believers look down on official Catholics like him because of their role in the state-sanctioned system.
“This is the country I was born into, and God must have wished it thus, so I accept it,” he said.
Li said her family had been Catholics for generations. When she was a girl, they had to pray secretly at home.
“Your faith cannot be limited — it depends only on your own heart,” she said.
“But of course what I wish for most is religious freedom.”