Put Out into the Deep

Let’s Keep Our Asian Brethren in Our Hearts and Prayers

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Our Lady of Sheshan. (Photo: Peter Potrowl)

In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI established May 24th as the World Day of Prayer for the Church in China. Here is some history into the importance of praying for Catholics in the communist country because of the lack of complete religious freedom and the rupture, or the disjuncture, in the church between the patriotic church and the underground church, that they could be restored to full unity.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Catholics in China, the first of its kind, encouraging them on the Feast of Pentecost to remain faithful in their Catholic faith. The history of the Church in China for the past 50 or more years after Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution has been a difficult one. The State Office of Religious Affairs has controlled the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics with the aim of controlling all religious activity, which included the ordination of bishops without the Papal Mandate.

In practice, this history created a two-tiered Church. First, the “underground Church” consisted of those who remained faithful to the Holy See and whose bishops were appointed by the Holy Father. Many of the members of the underground church were not able to practice their faith openly in most provinces of China. Second, the “patriotic church” includes some of whose bishops were appointed by the Chinese government Patriotic Association without the Papal Mandate.

Pope Benedict stated clearly, “Without claiming to deal with every detail of the complex matters well known to you, I wish through this letter to offer some guidelines concerning the life of the Church and the task of evangelization in China, in order to help you discover what the Lord and Master Jesus Christ wants from you.” Again, Pope Benedict wanted to keep the Catholics within the realm of the Universal Church. It is curious to me that in the letter, the Holy Father used the words “Duc in altum,” which in English means “put out into the deep.” He was inviting the Chinese Catholics to “remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence.”

He continued by saying, “In your country too, the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen will be possible to the extent that, with fidelity to the Gospel, in communion with the Successor of the Apostle Peter and with the universal Church, you are able to put into practice the signs of love and unity.” Clearly, following on his predecessor John Paul II, Pope Benedict worked to normalize the situation of the Catholic Church in China.

In 2018, the Holy Father, Pope Francis, entered into a secret accord regarding the selection of bishops in China, which became a controversial agreement in many ways. This accord was negotiated by the Vatican Secretary of State, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, who characterized the agreement as experimental. The three years of its existence have now expired, and a re-negotiation is in process. The agreement resulted in the recognition of seven bishops who were ordained in China without a Papal Mandate. Criticism of the agreement came from various sectors. Even our own US Secretary of State at the time, Michael Pompeo, said, “This type of political compromise should not be part of the Church, the Church’s negotiation.”

On the other hand, in his book entitled “Let’s Dream,” written about the time of the post-pandemic works, Pope Francis happens to mention the idea of compromise as part of the necessity of life. However, he always sees compromise as temporary, always entered into for the greater good. The Holy See does not act as a political partner, but as a religious entity in relation to others. Internally, in the Church, Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired Cardinal from Hong Kong, who visited the Diocese of Brooklyn in October of 2020, is also an arch-critic of the agreement. Cardinal Zen has claimed that the agreement will hurt the future of the Church in China. As we see already in Hong Kong, a crack-down has ensued.

In February 2020, China began enforcing administrative measures to control every aspect of religious activity within Hong Kong, mandating that all religious and believers in China comply with regulations issued by the Chinese Communist Party, which must be acknowledged as the higher authority. In May of 2021, the legislature of China approved a resolution to impose new “security laws” on its formerly autonomous region, Hong Kong. This is a move pro-democracy protestors and Catholics in the country feared would undermine the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, including freedom of religion.

My own experience, during my visit to China, was that the distinction between the underground and patriotic Church is greatly exaggerated. Each has preserved the Catholic faith and has to have struggled with the issue of Papal authority; the underground Church defending it and the patriotic Church giving ultimate authority to the State. During this period, however, both have grown in different ways. Sometimes the underground Churches have larger buildings than those who belong to the patriotic Church. The seminaries of the patriotic Church, on the other hand, are larger.

The lack of good training for the underground priests is compromising the faith at times. And so, there is no one easy solution to bringing these two aspects of the Church together. Also, the many provinces of China differ greatly in the latitude given to the underground Church and the support for the patriotic Church. The situation is truly confusing and hard to understand for any outsider.

We realize that in the Diocese of Brooklyn, we have become the center of a large Chinese community. In the 2010 Census, the number of Chinese people living in Brooklyn and Queens is almost 500,000 persons centered in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and its environs, and also in the Flushing area in Queens. Our Diocese seems to outnumber the Chinese community in the Archdiocese of New York, which is about 270,000 persons. Our Chinese Apostolate continues to grow. We have six sisters and seven who minister to the Chinese people. Mass in Chinese is celebrated in seven in Brooklyn and Queens. Our Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) always has several hundred adult Chinese converts being welcomed into the Church at the Easter Vigil. The Church grows here in Brooklyn and Queens, as it struggles in China.

We see a great expression of the faith of the Chinese people each year when they join in the procession of Our Lady of Sheshan, which is coordinated by the Religious Order of St. John the Baptist of the Parish of St. John Vianney in Flushing.

Our Lady of Sheshan is an image of the Blessed Mother which, unlike many other Marian devotions, does not commemorate an apparition of the Blessed Mother. Rather, Sheshan is a mountainside site in a suburb of Shanghai, China, where a basilica that honors Mary attracts many Chinese pilgrims. The basilica houses a re-interpreted image of Mary, Help of Christians. The title traces its history back to 1863 when the first church was built there. Jesuits bought the site where a dilapidated Buddhist temple stood. Unrest in the Tianjin region led to the burning of churches there. The Jesuits prayed at the statue of the Madonna and pledged to build a church in return for protection. In 1925, construction began on the current church building, which took 10 years to complete. Pope Pius XII named it a minor basilica in 1942.

Each year, the procession of Our Lady of Sheshan takes place bringing together several thousand Chinese people from our parishes in Brooklyn and Queens, and beyond. The procession follows the statue of Our Lady, carrying the Christ Child on her head which you will see pictured on this page. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, this procession did not take place this year.

We will soon commemorate World Day of Prayer for the Church in China when we are asked to put out into the deep in prayer for our brothers and sisters in China. We also remember our Asian community on this day, especially the Chinese, who seem to be scapegoated because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we began Lent 2020, I wrote a column in The Tablet to the Chinese people in our Diocese in which I said, “During the beginning of an epidemic, unfortunately, we see people looking to blame others. Perhaps a nation for delaying information on the virus, or in this case, anyone of Chinese heritage who in some way might be held responsible for the virus. As we begin this Lent, we must reflect on how we look upon our neighbors.” The present violence against our Asian brothers and sisters is certainly lamentable. This violence must stop. I ask that you include in your prayers and intentions that we might come to recognize that societal blame for any ills of the world is not tenable.