How has the Vatican's relationship with China changed over the last 100 years?

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No pope has ever visited China and the Vatican has no official diplomatic relations with the country. But dialogue and attempts have been made to better relations.

Recently, Pope Francis met with a delegation of the Hong Kong Christian Council. And he received an unofficial invitation from Cardinal Stephen Chow.

Include Hong Kong in one of your upcoming trips. Thank you.

On several occasions, Pope Francis has spoken about the situation of Chinese Catholics and even made gestures to show his solidarity with them like this one during his trip to China's neighboring country of Mongolia last year.

POPE FRANCIS
These two brother bishops: the emeritus of Hong Kong and the current bishop of Hong Kong. I would like to take advantage of your presence to send warm greetings to the noble people of China. To the entire population, I wish you all the best and go forward. Progress always.

Relations between the two States go back centuries, following the arrival of the Jesuits like Fr. Matteo Ricci in the 17th century. In 1924, the First Council of the Catholic Church was held in China. In 1926, Pope Pius XI consecrated the first six native Chinese Catholic bishops in more than 200 years.

But in 1949, the arrival of communism unraveled the centuries-long ties that had formed. Relations with Rome were severed and since then Catholics have faced the daily dilemma of whether to forsake their country or the Church. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote them a letter expressing Rome's closeness to Chinese Catholics, encouraging them to face difficulties with patience and reminding them of the importance of being good citizens.

FRANCESCO SCISCI
Sinologist

The letter finally began to resolve what was a deep rupture that lasted 70 years from the soul of the Chinese who did not know whether to be Catholic or Chinese.
These people had and continue to have a deep identity problem. The Chinese who are also Catholic do not want a separation between these two parts of the soul. It's like asking an Italian: are you Italian or are you Catholic? Or an American: are you American or Catholic?

In this letter, Pope Benedict XVI also shared his desire for an agreement to be reached on the appointment of Catholic bishops in China. And this desire came to fruition in 2018 with the signing of the historic agreement to approve bishops together.

Since then, an established line of communication between Beijing and Rome has developed—even Pope Francis commented on this improvement.

POPE FRANCIS
September 2023

The relationship with China is very respectful, very respectful. I personally have a great admiration for the Chinese people, they are very open.

FRANCESCO SCISCI
Sinologist

Beijing trusts Rome and also I think Rome has learned how to manage, how to talk to Beijing. And this is the area that then allowed us to arrive at this very significant breakthrough. Recently, to the appointment of three bishops and then being allowed to have a Catholic university in Hong Kong.

However, not all Chinese Catholics have embraced these institutional steps and do not feel as connected to the Church in Rome.

But the next steps to improving these bilateral relations could include the establishment of an official Church presence in China—something the Vatican Secretary of State is hopeful for.

CARD. PIETRO PAROLIN
Vatican Secretary of State

We have been hoping for a long time now to have a stable presence in China, even though initially it may not have the form of a pontifical representation of an apostolic nunciature. But still it will increase and deepen our relationship. That is our goal. Its form may be different than in other places, so right now we will not set it in any one way. We hope that over time, the more relationships deepen, we will also make this step.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, responded to the Cardinal's comment saying:

“We are willing to work together with the Vatican to promote the continuous improvement of China-Vatican relations.”

In China, the two most popular religious groups are agnostics and followers of the Chinese folk religion. Catholics only make up about 1% of the population.

For the moment, at the institutional level, communication is still open between the two. In Rome, an event was recently organized to celebrate the centenary of the first Council held in China in 1924. The Bishop of Shanghai and even a representative of the religious sector of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences participated in the conference.

KG

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