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Interview with Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle on the Renewal of the China-Vatican Agreement

Gianni Valente

(ZENIT News – FIDES / Rome, 22.10.2022).- “The motive for everything is to safeguard the valid apostolic succession and the sacramental nature of the Catholic Church in China,” with the desire to “calm, console and cheer up” Chinese Catholics. 

Cardinal Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle uses calm tones and words calibrated to reiterate what moves the Holy See to extend together with the Beijing Government for two more years the term of the Provisional Agreement on the Appointment of Chinese Bishops, signed in September 2018 and then renewed for the first time on October 22, 2020

The Filipino Cardinal recalls with grateful words the sensus fidei of so many Chinese Catholics, whose witness “has not sprouted in well cultivated and protected gardens, but in a rough and uneven terrain.” He acknowledges that “certain wounds need time and God’s consolation to be healed.” He reminds that “Bishops are not ‘functionaries of the Pope’” or “clerics of the State,” but “successors of the Apostles.” And he acknowledges how and why even the last words he heard from his Chinese grandfather help him today “to consider what can be more useful” in the dialogue with the Beijing Government. 

What is the criteria that leads the Holy See to persevere in the decision taken four years ago?

The Agreement between the Holy See and the Chinese Government, signed in 2018, refers to the procedures of selection and appointment of Chinese Bishops. It is a specific question, which touches a neuralgic point in the life of the Catholic community in China. In that country, historical events have caused painful lacerations in the heart of the Church, to the point of casting a shadow of suspicion on the sacramental life itself. Hence at stake were things that affected the intimate nature of the Church and its mission of salvation. 

With the Agreement an attempt is made to guarantee that Chinese Catholic Bishops can carry out their episcopal functions in full communion with the Pope. The motive is to safeguard the valid apostolic succession and the sacramental nature of the Catholic Church in China. And this can calm, console and cheer up baptized Catholics in China. 

The Hoy See has always reiterated the circumscribed character of the Agreement, which touches a vital subject for the Church and, therefore, cannot also be reduced to a contour element of some diplomatic strategy. Any consideration that ignores or darkens this singular physiognomy of the Agreement ends by giving it a false representation. 

It’s still not the time to make an evaluation, not even provisional. However, from your point of view, how do you see the progress realized and the effects of the Agreement? 

Since September 2018, six Bishops have been ordained according to the procedures established in the Agreement. The channels and areas of dialogue continue to be open, and this is already important in itself, in the given situation. The Holy See, listening to the Chinese Government and also to the Bishops, priests, religious and laity, is aware of this reality, in which fidelity to the Pope has been maintained even in difficult times and contexts, as intrinsic data of ecclesial communion.To listen to the arguments and objections of the Government also leads us to take into account the contexts and the “forma mentis” of our interlocutors. We discover that things that are absolutely clear and almost obvious to us can be new and unknown to them. It is also a challenge for us to find new words, new persuasive and familiar examples for their sensibility, to help them to understand more easily what really matters to us. 

And what really matters to the Holy See? 

The Holy See’s intention is only to foment the election of good Chinese Catholic Bishops that are worthy and apt to serve their people. However, to foment the election of worthy and ideal Bishops is also of interest to national Governments and Authorities, including those of China. Then, one of the Holy See’s desires has always been to foster reconciliation and see wounds healed and the open contrasts within the Church because of the tribulations they have been through. Certain wounds need time and God’s consolation to be healed. 

Does one not run the risk of hiding problems under the veil of hasty optimism? 

Since this process began, no one has expressed naïve triumphalism. The Holy See has never talked about the Agreement as the solution to all the problems. It has always perceived and affirmed that the road is long, it can be exhausting and that the Agreement itself can give way to misunderstandings and disorientation. The Holy See does not ignore or minimize the diversity of reactions among Chinese Catholics in face of the Agreement, where the joy of many is mixed with the perplexity of others. It is part of the process. But one must always “dirty one’s hands” with the reality of things exactly as they are. Numerous indications exist that many Chinese Catholics have grasped the inspiration followed by the Holy See in the process underway. They feel grateful and comforted by a process that confirms before all their full communion with the Pope and the universal Church. 

Civil authorities intervene in the election of Chinese Bishops. But this does not seem to be a novelty or exclusivity of the Chinese situation . . . 

The intervention of civil authorities in the election of Bishops has been manifested several times and in diverse ways in history. Also in the Philippines, my country, the rules of the “Royal Patronage” were in force for a long time, by which the organization of the Church was subjected to Spanish royal power. Saint Francis Xavier and the Jesuits also carried out their mission in India under the patronage of the Portuguese Crown . . . They are certainly different things and contexts, given that each case has its own specificity and historical explanation. But in these situations, what is important is that the procedure used for episcopal appointments guarantees and safeguards what the doctrine and discipline of the Church regard as essential to live hierarchical communion between the Successor of Peter  and the other Bishops, successors of the Apostles. And the same happens with the procedures used at present in China. 

The Chinese Government always calls the local Church to the demands of “Sinicization”

Throughout history Christianity has always experienced the processes of inculturation also as adaptation to the cultural and political contexts. The challenge in China can also be to show that belonging to the Church is not an obstacle to being a good Chinese citizen. There is no contradiction, no autarchy and, in fact, it is precisely walking in the faith of the Apostles that can help good Christians to be also good citizens. 

In this phase of the process, and given the possible slowdown and mishaps, in what can the Holy See trust? In what can it trust? 

The sensus fidei is comforting, of which so many Chinese Catholics give witness. A precious witness, which has often not sprouted in well cultivated and protected gardens, but in rough and uneven terrains. When I look at the history of Catholicism in China in the last decades, I always remember Saint Paul’s passage in the Letter to the Romans: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” Many Chinese Catholics have experienced in their flesh what Saint Paul writes  about – the tribulations, the anxieties but also the victory given by Christ’s love for them. 

What to say to those that affirm that, to deal with the Chinese Government, the Holy See hides or ignores the sufferings and problems of Chinese Catholics?  

The past and also recent sufferings and difficulties are always before the eyes of the Apostolic See in the affairs of the Church in China. The present options also are made precisely from this acknowledgement and gratitude for those that have confessed faith in Christ in times of tribulation. In its dialogue, the Holy See has its own respectful dialogue in its communication with representatives of the Chinese Government, but it never ignores and, on the contrary, always makes present the situations of suffering of the Catholic communities, which sometimes arise due to inappropriate pressures and interferences.

What can favour the recognition of the so-called “underground” Bishops by the Chinese political apparatus?

This is a point that is always taken into account in the dialogue. To foster the solution to this problem perhaps it might be useful for all to take into account that the Bishops cannot be seen as “functionaries”: the Bishops are not “functionaries of the Pope or “of the Vatican,” because they are in fact the successors of the Apostles. Neither can they be regarded as “religious functionaries” of worldly political instruments or, as Pope Francis says, “clerics of the State.”

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle

The confusion about the episcopal ministry and the relationship between the Bishops and the Pope does not only happen in China…

I once heard in Saint Peter’s a tourist guide trying to explain to tourists the figure and role of the Pope in the Church, trying to find images that would be familiar to them: “the Church,” said the guide, “is like a great company, as Toyota or Apple. And the Pope is like the Executive Director of this ‘company.’” The tourists seemed to be satisfied  with this explanation, and would have returned home with this idea, which does not really fit the true role of the Pope as General Director and the Church as an economic-financial company…

You, called to Rome by Pope Francis as Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, what impression do you have of the ways and energy with which Chinese Catholics live their missionary vocation, including to the multitude of compatriots who do not know Jesus? 

I see that the parishes and the communities carry out a pastoral and charitable work in the whole of China with fervour and also with creativity. Every year there are many new Baptisms, also among adults. It is an apostolic work carried out by Chinese Catholic communities in the day to day, always in tune with the suggestions of the papal magisterium, including with many limitations. 

Over the last years, Chinese Catholic communities have lived intensely the Year of Faith, the Jubilee of Mercy and many charitable activities during COVID. Also when I lived in Manila, my attention was always caught by the witness of Chinese Catholics and of other communities of countries where they live as a minority and also in difficult contexts. Expatriated Chinese Catholics also continue helping the Church in China in many ways, for example, supporting the construction of churches and chapels. The local Churches have geographic borders, but there is a human area of ecclesial communion that transcends the borders. 

What memory does your mother have of her Chinese ancestors? 

My mother was born in the Philippines and grew up in a Filipino more than a Chinese  context. My maternal grandfather had become a Christian and was baptized. He was a very realistic and “pragmatic” Chinese Catholic. On the anniversary of his mother’s death, he offered incense and food before the image of his mother and said to us grandchildren:  “let no one touch this food! First your great grandmother must taste it in Heaven and then it will be for us to do so… ‘ In a certain way, his memory helps me now to consider what can be more useful in the dialogue with the Chinese Government. 

To what are you referring? 

When I confided to my grandfather my desire to enter the Seminary, he said to me: “I never imagined that I would have a grandson priest . . . I don’t understand this world of priests!  I felt somewhat mortified and then, he added: ‘I don’t understand it, but a continue wanting you to be a good priest.’ However, when I think of my dialogue with the Chinese Government about ecclesiastical questions, I think that sometimes it’s best to look for simple and direct arguments, to know the concrete and pragmatic focus of our interlocutors. We cannot hope that they will grasp in depth the mystery of the Church, vivified by the Holy Spirit. It was also difficult for me to explain to my grandfather the origin of my priestly vocation… And yet it was important for me to keep in mind his simple desire that I be a good priest. 

This year the 400th anniversary is being observed of Propaganda Fide, an institution that has played an important role in the journey of the Church in China. How must we see this anniversary? Does it mark the end of a story?

From the Propaganda Fide Palace a prophetic glance has often been cast on the events of Christianity in China. Suffice it to think of the role of Celso Costantini, who was the first Apostolic Delegate in post-imperial China and later was also Secretary of Propaganda Fide.

In regard to the present and the future, the great history of Propaganda Fide is not being liquidated or falling into oblivion. Many things can change and, in the end, the present context is no longer that in which Propaganda Fide was established. But the flow of faith, hope and charity  that has passed through Propaganda Fide  has not been lost. And many ideas that arose in past times can suggest very timely solutions and focuses, appropriate to the current situation.

Pope Francis repeats that Tradition is not a museum of ancient things, but the journey of a living reality in faith. Structures and ways are born as answers to the needs of concrete times, but when the structures change, the life that animated them does not disappear. This applies also to Propaganda Fide. It is an institution born in specific historical conditions, but in its heart that apostolic vitality has passed, recognized and confirmed also in Vatican Council II, where it was repeated that the entire Church is called to be missionary in every baptized person. It is time to recognize that the whole ecclesial reality and structure is called  to missionary conversion. This applies to every parish priest, to every Bishop. Pope Francis’  Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium also showed how, in the present condition of the Church, any dialectic opposition between what is “pastoral” and what is “missionary” seems  to have been surmounted. Every endeavour, every pastoral initiative must be lived with a missionary heart.

[October, missionary month – Sunday, October 23 is World Mission Day. In your opinion, what should we focus on to honour properly this traditional appointment in China and in the whole world?

Pope Francis’ message for World Mission Day this year is entitled “You Will Be My Witnesses.” The title takes a verse from the Acts of the Apostles. And the witness to which it refers is that of Christians’ evangelical life, which can shine in daily life, in the faithful and joyful perseverance of individuals changed and healed by their encounter with Jesus].

Sometimes we hear that there is the risk of “reducing” the mission to social works, and that it is necessary to proclaim the Gospel with clarity and sharpness, to give foundation to the “works”… 

In the dynamic of witness and confession of the Christian faith, I don’t perceive such a sharp dialectic between the proclamation of the Gospel and acts of charity. Once I found myself accompanying people who were taking aid to a refugee camp where there were no Christians. One of the refugees asked: Why do you Christians worry about us? Why have you travelled so far to come here, without even knowing us? I was able to answer that we only followed Our Lord Jesus, because He taught us to love and serve everyone. At that moment a girl said to me: “I would like to know that Jesus.” That time, a charitable gesture stirred the questions. I thought that in the curiosity of the person asking the questions the Holy Spirit was already acting. This is how hearts can open to the proclamation of the Gospel. Witness can certainly be given by repeating true words that proclaim the salvation promised by Christ. However, a living witness of charity is already in itself a proclamation of the Word of God.

Translation of the Italian original by ZENIT’s Editorial Director and, into English, by Virginia M. Forrester