Divided church in China awaits next pope

The next pope has a long list of challenges awaiting him, and where the divided church in China ranks on that list is something Roman Catholics in this part of the world will be watching for when Pope Benedict XVI's successor takes over.

New pope, new leadership in Beijing: new hope for Catholics in China?

A churchgoer rests at a church in eastern China in August, 2012. The Chinese government maintains control of the practice of Catholicism and has shown little interest in negotiating with the Vatican to repair broken ties. Some Catholics have hope the new pope will be able to revive talks but don't think anything will change soon. (Aly Song/Reuters)

The next pope has a long list of challenges awaiting him, and where the divided church in China ranks on that list is something Roman Catholics in this part of the world will be watching for when Pope Benedict XVI's successor takes over.

At Hong Kong's Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, worshippers regularly pray for their fellow Catholics on the mainland who practice their faith under far different circumstances.

"We hope that the new pope can help us go into China," said Ma Yee-Man, one of the parishioners who spoke to CBC News following mass Sunday. "We hope that our brothers and sisters in China can have communion and mass freely the way we do. We pray hard and we hope that the new pope can help us."

Another parishioner, Samantha Wong, said she "absolutely" shares the hope expressed by Ma, but she doesn't think the broken ties between the Vatican and the Chinese government will be mended any time soon.

"Relations have been tense. I don't think it's something that would happen quickly no matter who it is," she said, referring to Benedict's successor. "It doesn't change overnight."

Catholic priest Liu Yong Wang performs holy communion in a make-shift chapel in the village of Bai Gu Tun, around 70 km southeast of Beijing in July, 2012. There are reports of Chinese authorities recently cracking down on these types non-registered churches. (David Gray/Reuters)

The division dates back to the 1950s when the Communist Party expelled all foreign missionaries, closed churches and took the position that the Vatican shouldn't interfere in China's internal matters. It set up bodies called the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China to oversee state-sanctioned churches instead.

'Underground' churches

This led to a system of "underground" churches that are not registered with the government, where members are loyal to the Holy See and attend mass at risk of persecution. Sometimes local authorities are tolerant, sometimes they are not, and there are ongoing reports of crackdowns on the non-registered churches.

The conflict over who has the authority to ordain bishops — the Vatican or Chinese authorities — remains one of the major roadblocks on the path to reunification and talks between the two sides have been stalled for years. 

With new political leadership in Beijing, and soon new leadership in the Vatican, Catholics are wondering what lies ahead for the church in China.

"I don’t think there will be any significant change," Anthony Lam, a researcher with the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong said. "It's not easy to overcome the problem in China," he added.

Lam's centre, part of the Hong Kong diocese, monitors the situation in China and provides support to the estimated 12 million people practising in both the registered and underground churches.

CBC in Hong Kong

Meagan Fitzpatrick has been posted to Hong Kong to bolster CBC's coverage of a dynamic region of the world. Hong Kong is known as an international financial centre, but there is much more to it than that, and it has close connections to Canada. The city of seven million hosts nearly 300,000 Canadians, and about 500,000 people of Hong Kong descent make their home in Canada. Meagan is a senior online writer who covers national news and federal politics in CBC's Ottawa bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @fitzpatrick_m

One of the reasons Lam thinks the dispute is likely to remain unresolved is because, put simply, both sides have more important things to deal with. "They're not seeing this as a top priority; they have more urgent things," he said. "It doesn't mean they will overlook the importance of the normalizing of the relations, but it takes time."

If and when the next pope does turn his attention to China, those red loafers are in some ways big shoes to fill. Benedict left his mark on this region during his eight-year reign when in early 2007 he convened a meeting of Vatican officials and experts on the Church in China and then a few months later he issued an extraordinary and lengthy pastoral letter to followers and clergy in China.

In it he addressed the divisions among them, laid out the Vatican's positions on a variety of issues related to the conflict, and called for a dialogue with Chinese authorities. He also created a commission made up of Vatican officials dedicated to resolving the standoff and he created a dedicated day of prayer for Catholics in China.

Talks stalled for years

For a time, things seemed to be looking up. Beijing and the Vatican consulted on the appointment of bishops and the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra and the Shanghai Opera Choir even performed for the pope in Rome in 2008.

But in 2010, any progress that was being made was abruptly halted when Beijing appointed a bishop without the Vatican's approval. It was viewed as an act of defiance, and it was one that has since been repeated and caused even deeper divisions.

This past fall, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, a Vatican official who lived in Hong Kong from 1992 to 2001, described the situation in China as "serious," and said misinformation and accusations are hardening positions. He lamented the lack of progress since Benedict's 2007 letter and urged for it to be used as a departure point for renewed talks.

Cardinal Joseph Zen from Hong Kong is surrounded by reporters near St. Peter Square in Rome on Feb.28. Zen wants the Vatican to take a tougher position with Chinese authorities. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Other senior Catholic voices in this region are similarly calling for the next pope to continue what Benedict started. "I hope the new Pope will start again from this letter," Cardinal Joseph Zen, a retired bishop from Hong Kong, recently wrote in an article for Asia News.

The commission has failed in its work, according to Zen, and he doesn’t agree that compromises should be made with authorities in Beijing. He urged for a stronger tone to be taken by the Vatican, calling the government an "enemy" of the Church. Zen said that although Catholics should be optimistic, the new leadership in China isn't inspiring new hope.

A spokesman for China's foreign ministry recently warned that the new pope shouldn't interfere in its internal affairs and that the Vatican must break ties with Taiwan if talks are ever to resume. "For me, the more I see of the new leader, Xi Jinping, the more I begin to lose hope," wrote Zen, who is currently in Rome and could not be reached for an interview.

For Catholics in Hong Kong and mainland China, the future of their Church is uncertain. As one nun outside of Hong Kong's cathedral said on Sunday, "You can never predict what will happen in China."

Does she still have hope the Church will one day be united? "Certainly."