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What does the Vatican agreement on bishop appointments mean for China's Catholics?

Details of the historic yet controversial "provisional" agreement reached by the Vatican and China last weekend regarding future appointments of Chinese bishops have yet to be made public.

The deal, signed following years of quiet negotiations between the Holy See and Beijing, has sparked controversy over what critics say are limits in its capacity to address a basket of thorny issues between the two sides.

"The agreement is a very small but important step," according to Brussels-based Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, a member of the Vatican Commission on China.

"There are many issues that will take many years, even up to one or two generations to resolve," he said.

Advocates of the agreement have said it will help reunify the Catholic Church in China, but critics believe it has "sold out" long-suffering members of the underground church on the mainland.

Pope Francis released a lengthy letter to 12 million Chinese Catholics on Wednesday to try and explain what is behind the deal.

But will the faithful in China be able to heal wounds of the past and overcome the remaining obstacles to reach full communion among all Chinese Catholics?

What compromises have been made on both sides for the deal to be reached?

The provisional agreement with the Chinese government ends a 60-year power struggle between the Holy See and China which began when mainland authorities ordained two bishops in 1958 without papal approval.

Under the new agreement, Pope Francis is recognised for the first time by Beijing as universal head of the Catholic Church, including in China.

Pope Francis will also have final say in the selection of future Chinese bishops. It is expected that government authorities and Beijing-sanctioned churches will nominate a pool of candidates before they are independently vetted by the Vatican for the Pope's consideration.

Pope Francis urges Chinese Catholics to overcome divisions

Sociologists and religious clergy have said this seems to be a compromise by China, which previously viewed such selections as a matter of sovereignty.

In return, Pope Francis has reconciled with seven bishops who were appointed without Vatican approval, and subsequently excommunicated from the church. The future of more than 30 underground bishops remains one of the largest unanswered questions regarding the agreement.

Pope Francis has reconciled with seven bishops appointed without Vatican approval in the historic agreement with China. Photo: AP

What are the key points from Pope Francis's letter?

China's communist government created a parallel power structure to manage mainland Catholic churches after it cut ties with the Holy See in 1951.

In 1957, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was established to make sure clerics followed the Communist Party line. China's Bishop Conference selects and independently appoints bishops, sometimes without papal approval.

Today, about 60 per cent of mainland Catholics worship in state-sanctioned churches but many, especially younger followers, have admitted to being unaware of the rift between Beijing and Rome.

Who are the excommunicated bishops and how will they be reconciled?

The bishops ordained without a Pontifical Mandate include: Bishop Joseph Guo Jincai of Chengde diocese, Joseph Huang Bingzhang of Shantou diocese, Paul Lei Shiyin of Leshan diocese, Joseph Liu Xinhong of Anhui diocese, Joseph Ma Yinglin of Kunming diocese, Joseph Yue Fusheng of Heilongjiang diocese and Vincent Zhan Silu of Mindong diocese.

The late bishop, Anthony Tu Shihua, had expressed the desire to be reconciled with the Apostolic See before his death on January 4, 2017.

Bishop Joseph Li Shan leads a mass at the South Cathedral in Beijing on the day the 'provisional agreemen'" between China and the Vatican was announced. Photo: AFP

It is understood the bishops wrote letters of repentance stating their desire to rebuild communion with the Pope.

After considering their testimonies from "bishops who have damaged communion in the Church as a result of weakness and errors" as well as those caving into pressure, according to Pope Francis's message, each of their cases was studied before decrees of reconciliation were signed.

In the end, the seven living excommunicated Chinese government appointed bishops were once again admitted to full ecclesiastical communion.

What is the immediate next step?

Both sides must resolve the placement of formerly excommunicated bishops and fill vacancies in 12 dioceses. Problems of the 30 or so underground bishops also remain to be resolved.

Pope Francis has established a new diocese in Chengde, Hebei province northeast of Beijing. As a result, Jehol, Jinzhou and Chifeng dioceses have been made smaller to accommodate the new diocese.

Pope: China's underground Catholics will suffer after Vatican deal

He has also appointed as bishop of the new diocese Guo Jincai, who is also deputy secretary general of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. There are 25,000 faithful, seven priests and about 10 nuns in the Chengde diocese.

Earlier this year, the Vatican asked the legitimate bishops Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou diocese and Joseph Guo Xijin of Mindong diocese to step down and make room for Huang and Zhan, who are now reconciled with the Pope.

How do Catholics on the Chinese mainland perceive the deal?

An older generation of mainland underground Catholics felt disappointed by the deal as it was signed in a time of intense religious crackdown across China.

Crosses have been torn down, Christian churches closed and, in some cases, bibles burned, according to underground Protestant Christians. Some fear the mainland government will be further emboldened to bring in harsher measures to eliminate underground churches in the name of communion after winning a compromise from the Vatican.

Bibles have been burned, crosses torn down and Christian closed according to underground Protestant Christians in China. Some fear a further crackdown on underground Catholic churches as a result of the agreement with the Vatican. Photo: AFP

In fact, a crackdown has already begun in Hebei province, home to one of China's largest underground Catholic communities. According to a government notice seen by the Post, Shijiazhuang's Gaocheng district authorities are moving to eliminate underground Catholic establishments.

There are also concerns about Pope Francis's lack of understanding about the intensity of the religious crackdown in China. Chinese priest Father Luke, referring to the Pope's letter, said the mainland's faithful had never "resisted" Chinese government.

"He mentioned 'resistance' but it shows that he really doesn't understand. Chinese lay faithful have always been disadvantaged and continued to endure. There is no room to resist the authorities ... His wish is beautiful but is far from the reality," Luke said.

What issues remain unresolved following the agreement?

1. The future of 30-plus underground bishops and underground Catholic churches:

The underground Catholic communities are likely to experience a similar crackdown to that suffered by Protestant Christian churches.

Sources said mainland authorities might accept a few underground bishops but conditions remain unknown. It is possible that they could be recognised by the Bishops Conference of Catholic Church in China and asked to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. But whether they would agree to join remains another issue.

A man decorates a government-sanctioned Catholic church on the day before Easter in Youtong village, Hebei province, China, earlier this year. Photo: Reuters

Meanwhile, at least two underground bishops have already been asked to step down to make room for government-ordained bishops.

Father Heyndrickx said the Chinese authorities were also eager to clarify the situation of underground bishops.

"They are trouble in the eyes of authorities as they exist outside the law and publicly oppose [religious affairs] regulations. It's not good for China's image," he said.

It is also unclear whether the bishops that are jailed, "disappeared" or incommunicado could be released. For example, Bishop James Su Zhimin of Baoding diocese in Hebei province "disappeared" in 1997. His whereabouts remains unknown.

2. The role of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association change in future:

The state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association has vowed to be independent, autonomous in the governing and operation of church affairs while upholding the direction of Sinicisation and the path that suits a socialist society.

Hong Kong, Taiwan Catholics upbeat over Vatican deal

One of its main functions is to make sure clerics and lay faithful are patriotic and toe the Communist Party line. It used to insist on selecting and ordaining its own bishops without papal consent. How it will change in the future remains a question to be answered.

"The independence of CPCA is absolutely unacceptable for the Catholic Church," Heyndrickx said.

3. The Vatican's role in ensuring freedom of worship in China:

Mainland authorities amended China's Religious Affairs Regulation this February to ramp up the crackdown against underground Christian churches across the nation.

Other measures have included the banning of religious preaching on the internet. The effect has been a strengthening of the authorities' grip over officially sanctioned religious bodies as well as underground church communities.

Future gatherings of unsanctioned groups have been made incredibly difficult.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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