Thursday, 13 September 2007

Some good news from the ground

It's great to see that there's some good news coming out of the Catholic church in China at the moment. Adam Minter, an American writer based in Shanghai, tells us that Guiyang has a new bishop. This is a hugely important development, as Adam explains - Fr Paul Xiao Zejiang, the elected and government-approved candidate for the role of adjutor bishop, has received the Pope's blessing in advance of his ordination.

Not only that, but a Papal document has been circulating in Guiyang highlighting the Pope's approval of this choice, and as word has spread, underground Catholics have not only congratulated the new bishop but agreed to participate with the official church in the ordination ceremony. In so doing, these Chinese Catholics have taken a major step towards healing the painful rift between underground and 'official' Catholics, in accordance with the express wish of the Pope in his recent letter to China's faithful.

As Churchill said, this is not the end. It may not even be the beginning of the end. But if it's the end of the beginning of this chapter in China's history, this is a cause for great optimism.

What is a great shame is that this good news has been hugely underreported, and where reports have appeared, they have contained factual inaccuracies and revealed only the prejudices of their authors - take, for instance, the article Adam mentions at the end of this piece, which leads with the headline "New Vatican row looms as assistant bishop ordained", and includes the patently absurd claim that the ordination “could rile the Vatican”.

I should add that as far as I can make out, a lot of the reports and commentary I've read from the West on the death of the underground bishop Mgr Han Dingxian have been wildly exaggerated. It's terrible that he spent half his adult life in prison, and the Chinese authorities rightly deserve condemnation for this curtailment of his freedom. But he was not a young man, he had lung cancer, and there is no real suggestion that there was any foul play involved in his death.

What there has been is disappointment that he was cremated so soon after his death and without the chance to receive the sacraments - another article I read indicates that this may have been a deliberate move by police to avoid an illegal gathering of the underground church at his funeral. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the law which makes such a gathering illegal, the pragmatic decision to try to avert potential trouble by simply not allowing the situation to arise is not necessarily a sign of evil intent.

Of course, a glance at the Western media will tell you that human nature likes nothing better than a conspiracy theory, and so there has also been wild speculation in some quarters about possible other reasons for the speed of the cremation, coupled with the resurrection of stories from several years ago.

Now, I'm no apologist for the Chinese regime - several people I know well, including one very good friend, have spent time in Chinese jails as prisoners of conscience. We live by our reputations, and the Chinese government deservedly acquired a reputation for brutality during the Cultural Revolution, which it did little to shake off in the following decades.

But the news is not unrelentingly bad. The quiet diplomacy of the Vatican has carried on in the background over the last several years, and there is cause for hope. Let's not forget that hope. And let's not forget to pray for wisdom for China's leaders as they guide the increasing liberalisation of their country, and for the people who have suffered under a harsh regime to be given the strength to forgive and rebuild their lives in peace and without bitterness.

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