The Church in China
As the Beijing Olympics draw nearer, Shaun Growney reports on a conversation with Fr Elias Vella OFM (Conv) about the state of the Church in China.
I met Fr Elias in London in January. He is a youthful sixty-six year old Franciscan from the Mediterranean island of Malta who spends most of his time giving talks and retreats to various groups around the world, priests, religious and lay people. Since 2005, his annual itinerary has included China where he teaches courses in biblical spirituality to Chinese Catholic priests at the National Seminary in Beijing. He is due to go there again in June this year for his fourth visit. Fr Elias speaks English and Italian fluently as well as his Maltese mother-tongue, but he doesnt speak Chinese. So he relies on an interpreter, a Chinese priest who has studied in the USA, when he gives his talks.
The invitation to teach at the National Seminary comes from an official in the Government Religious Affairs Bureau who subsequently welcomes him and acts as host during his visit. The official is always kind and friendly. He has even suggested that Fr Elias might like to teach at other seminaries in China. As Fr Elias explained to me, the Chinese Government disapproves of any organisation within its borders which is under the control of an external authority. So religions are accepted only so long as they submit to the scrutiny and control of the government and do not claim or give allegiance to any higher authority based outside Chinese sovereign territory. On this restricted basis the Catholic and Protestant Christian Churches are officially recognised as well as three other non Christian religions, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism. These are referred to collectively as the Patriotic Churches. They come under the authority of the government alone.
The authority of the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury over the Christian faith groups is not recognised and neither is any other external authority over the other approved religious organisations. So, it is the government, not the Vatican, that appoints bishops in the official Chinese Catholic Church and by this means it ensures compliance with government policies which may be contrary to the policies of the Vatican. It is understood that the Chinese Catholic bishops are nevertheless unofficially evaluated by the Church and most (though not all) are approved or considered satisfactory. It is official Vatican policy to seek rapprochement with the Chinese Government and much progress has been made towards this in recent years.
The same problem of authority arises for religious orders such as the Franciscans which owe their allegiance to Superiors in other countries. Some female religious congregations founded within China do exist but none of the main internationally known orders, male or female are permitted anywhere in China. Also, whilst the official Church is free to operate openly within the constraints imposed, it is forbidden to hold any religious meeting or service without getting official approval. Such meetings or services are known to take place but they are illegal. The sanctions against offenders can be severe but are not always so. Some Chinese provincial authorities are more tolerant than others. However, individual liberty to practice ones faith in China is clearly subject to conditions which can be difficult to comply with. There are moral difficulties too, an obvious one for Catholics being the difference between government policy on family size and Church teaching on abortion and contraception.
Despite all this, Fr Elias is optimistic about the Church in China, as the Body of Christ. There is no shortage of vocations and the ordination of priests is valid according to Rome. So mass can be openly celebrated even if some topics are avoided when it comes to preaching. The numbers of the faithful are growing and the Holy Spirit, as always, blows where he will. And there is some good evidence that he is working to great effect in the hearts of the people.
One story Fr Elias tells is of a woman troubled with some mental problem who came to see one of the priests he taught (having already tried the Buddhists, Fortune Tellers and so on). He didnt know what to do but he laid his hands on her and said an Our Father. The woman was instantly healed and she asked, Who healed me? Jesus, said the priest, and then he told her about him. She was later baptised and became a powerful evangelical voice in the parish. Whenever she came across people who were sick or disturbed she told them that Jesus would heal them if they keep his word. She has apparently brought some 200 to faith this way. And the parish priest says that his parish is now on fire.
Another priest came to him to say that he was praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament and was spontaneously baptised in the Spirit (although he was not familiar with the expression itself). He began praying in tongues and to prophesy. This was all very strange to him but he was encouraged to preach and evangelise more openly. It is not thought wise to say too much about the Charismatic Renewal in open discussion at the seminary, but Fr Elias has been asked about it by the priests he teaches and he replies by pointing out the scripture passages from which they can make sense of the experience they might have already had or are open to having.
Asked about the effect the Olympics might have on religious freedom in China, Fr Elias said that he thought it would be positive. The Chinese Government is striving to improve its international reputation and would not wish to attract any adverse publicity when it is exposed to the worlds media during the Olympics. Many Olympic athletes belong to Christian or other faith groups and will want to be able to practice freely while they are in China and some at least will be keen to make contact with local faith groups. The Holy Spirit is unlikely to miss such an opportunity to bring renewal to Beijing and the whole country. Let us pray that this may be so.
As a footnote to this report of Fr Elias experience, I gather from an internet search that the number of Catholics in China is officially about twenty million but is more like sixty million in practice, the difference being those who do not follow their faith through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, but do so illegally in the underground Church.