28 Pages, 7 Languages

That’s the latest on the Pope’s promised letter to China’s Catholics – at least, according to Korazym, a heretofore unknown (to me) Italian website that obtained its information from the Italian APcom Agency. My college Italian is rusty, and I’ll admit that I can’t find the original report on the APcom site, but given the Korazym site’s religious nature , I’ll give them the benefit on this one.

Anyway.

Citing an “authoritative source close to the drafting of the text,” APcom reports that – in addition to be being 28 pages in the original Italian – the text is currently in press, and will be released by the end of June. Shortly after the letter was announced, authoritative rumors began to circulate that it would be released at Easter, then during the “Easter Season,” and then, finally at Pentecost. Thus, it was interesting to read that the Pope signed the letter on Pentecost.

In terms of the content, APcom’s source indicates that the text includes an overview of Vatican-China relations over the last fifty years, and some consideration of Cardinal Tomko’s infamous “Eight Points.” Both of these are quite necessary. In my experience, few inside or outside of China have a knowledge or understanding of the complicated set of historical and political circumstances that contributed to the current divisions in the Chinese Catholic Church. The latter issue – Tomko’s Eight Points – have been a touchy issue in and outside of China for many years. Issued in 1988, by the then Prefect of Propaganda Fide, Jozef Tomko, the Eight Points document strictly proscribed Catholic contact with members of the registered (or “open”) Catholic Church in China. The most infamous proscription, point 5, reads:

Another rather delicate point is the question of the liturgical celebrations. In fact all ‘communicatio in sacris’ is to be avoided. The ‘patriotic’ bishops and priests are not be invited or even allowed to celebrate religious functions in public, either in the church or in the oratories of the various religious instititutes.

In matter of fact and practice, that point has been seriously “violated” by countless laity, deacons, nuns, monks, priests, bishops, and cardinals in China, Hong Kong, North America, and Europe over the past two decades. Indeed, outside of the more hard-line anti-communist hierarchy (of which Tomko was the most notable member), it has never been taken seriously. And yet, at the same time, the Eight Points have served to confuse an already confusing situation and, in some cases, been used as a blunt propaganda tool against open church leaders.

In my recently published profile of Shanghai’s Bishop Jin Luxian in the Atlantic (subscriber only), I allude to the fact that the Underground Church’s anti-communist supporters in the Vatican often worked at complete tangents with what Pope John Paul II wanted in connection with China’s Church. Because of the sensitivity of the issue, I could not and cannot reveal the sources for that claim, but suffice it to say that the Eight Points would likely be a part of any discussion that explores that claim.

Of the those Vatican officials who were working for the Pope’s policies, none was – or continues to be – more important than a little known Archbishop by the name of Claudio Maria Celli. Rev. Larry Murphy, a past President of Seton Hall who played an important role as an intermediary between Rome and the Chinese Church during the 1980s and 1990s, described Celli to me in September 2006:

John Paul took Celli and put him into an obscure position – I forget what the title was. He’s the guy responsible for the patrimony of the Holy See. Title Obscura. He says you can park it here and continue to work for me. Not only in China, but Vietnam and North Korea.

[You can hear Larry Murphy describe one of his interactions with Celli here, on the Atlantic website, for free]

Celli has been a quiet, subtle, and critical diplomat on the China issue for two decades. A proponent of reconciliation, he has not been afraid to reach out to Open Church figures such as Shanghai’s Bishop Jin, with whom he first met in 1993, at the behest of the Pope, in Lyon, France (they have had at least two additional face-to-face meetings, including one at Seton Hall in the mid-90s).

So I was not surprised to read that the Pope’s letter to China’s Catholics will likely be introduced to the world at a Vatican press conference presided over “probably by Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli.” The fact that Celli would be mentioned in this connection is strong evidence to support rumors that the letter does, in fact, call for reconciliation and dialog between China’s divided Catholics, and between Rome and Beijing.

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