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Chinese Catholics ‘pray for the best’ but wary after historic Vatican deal on bishops

Chinese Catholics have mixed feelings about the Vatican’s landmark deal with Beijing: Some in the unofficial “underground” church remain suspicious of the government while others “pray for the best”.

As parishioners in the capital’s Catholic cathedral gathered to celebrate mass on Saturday evening, still others in the pews were unaware of the historic deal aimed at resolving a decades-old dispute over who gets to name bishops.

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Bishop Joseph Li Shan (C) baptises a woman during a mass at the South Cathedral in Beijing on September 22, 2018. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri.

After the provisional agreement was announced by both sides, the Vatican said Pope Francis recognised seven clergy appointed by the Chinese Communist government — a move that could lead to a rapprochement for the first time since diplomatic ties were severed in 1951.

Yet across the country, there was a mixed reaction to what some call a compromise by the Holy See and a betrayal of Vatican loyalists.

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Catholics recognise the pope as the head of the church, with the appointment of bishops requiring a nod from the Holy See — while China’s officially atheist government does not tolerate any other power centre and insists on appointing its own bishops.

This split the country’s roughly 12 million Catholics between the state-sanctioned church — which includes the government in its Prayer of The Faithful during mass — and the underground church which sees the Vatican as the ultimate authority.

‘Stay apart’

At the official South Cathedral in the heart of Beijing, worshippers seemed unaware of the landmark agreement.

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Mass celebrated the baptism of 80 new believers, with bishop Joseph Li — sanctioned by both the Vatican and Beijing — delivering a homily touching on the theme of loyalty and faith.

After being told the news by an AFP reporter, many were nonchalant.

“Whatever this means for the church is up to God. As a follower of the church, we pray for the best,” said a churchgoer who gave her name only as Magdalene.

Others hoped that government and religion could have their separate spaces.

“Our religion should worship God and support the government’s sovereignty, but our church should stay apart from the government,” Paul Yu told AFP after mass.

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There were similar scenes in Shanghai where worshippers said they had not heard of the deal.

 ‘Spies’

But those with links to the unofficial church say it appears the Vatican is making concessions to China in hope of better relations, which could be a futile effort because Beijing is unlikely to go along with it in the long term.

“Maybe this agreement solves the problem of the seven bishops,” said a priest with ties to the underground church.

“But in terms of choosing bishops in the future, it does not resolve the fundamental problem… and it cannot help improve the situation of the church.”

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While the clergy is appointed by the Communist Party, the Vatican has previously accepted several bishops appointed by the government.

A priest from an underground church in the central Hebei province said the congregation has always been loyal to the Vatican and will continue to be.

“There are some church members and priests that accept this turn in events, and some that cannot completely come to terms (with the situation), because they remain suspicious of the Communist Party,” said the priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“They doubt the government’s sincerity,” he said, noting that some members of his church work for the authorities as “spies”.

Chinese Catholics 'pray for the best' but wary after historic Vatican deal on bishops