• World

A Tale of Two Churches

4 minute read
Matthew Forney | Shijiazhuang

Father Benedictus’s parish in Shijiazhuang, the sooty industrial capital of Hebei province, isn’t recognized by the Chinese government: he’s one of the country’s underground priests. And yet he goes about his business with a remarkable lack of stealth. Four days after the death of Pope John Paul II, Father Benedictus removed his 125 cc Honda motorcycle from the courtyard that doubles as his church. In full view of the neighborsand, he assumes, plainclothes policesome 400 worshippers paraded down a quiet lane to the courtyard bearing candles and a memorial photograph of the deceased pontiff. During mass, they wept, prayed and lined up for communion. Authorities made no attempt to stop them. “As long as we don’t protest or set off firecrackers, we’re basically left alone,” says Father Benedictus.

The scene a day later at Beijing’s officially sanctioned East Church, which is administered by the state-run Catholic Patriotic Association, was no less fervent. The church was hung with banners commemorating the Pope, and a priest in purple vestments led prayers for his “peaceful enjoyment of heaven.” This was the first time since Beijing severed relations with the Vatican in 1951 that worshippers in state-approved churches were allowed to commemorate a Pope’s death. With China’s approximately 10 million Catholics united in mourning the Pontiff, the divide between underground and official congregations was blurred. “Underground churches now often work openly in China, and official churches recognize the spiritual authority of the Pope,” says Anthony Lam, senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong. The outpouring of grief, he says, “has brought the underground and official churches closer to each other than at any time in 50 years.”

This unity presents an opportunity for the next Pope. John Paul II’s great unfulfilled desire was to visit China and re-establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, giving the Vatican a direct link to China’s Catholics and a greater ability to object to government repression. In return, China would demand that the Holy See break off its ties with Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province. In secret negotiations over the past decade, papal representatives cleared most obstacles to this kind of understanding, but one major sticking point has remained: the Pope’s right to name bishops in China, which Beijing refuses to accept because it would mean ceding authority to a foreign power.

Beijing and the Holy See were close to a deal in 2000, but it was derailed by the sanctioned church, which deliberately offended Rome by elevating four bishops without first informing the Vatican. The Vatican retaliated by canonizing Christians killed during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century. The Pope later mended fences by apologizing for the Church’s mistakes in China over the past four centuries, and last week, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry expressed “sadness” at his passing. But the two sides haven’t gone back to the negotiating table. “The Chinese side,” says Joseph Zen, Archbishop of Hong Kong, “has not shown much interest in dialogue.”

Instead, China last month released a new circular, “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” which, among other things, reiterates that all churches must be registered with the government. Most underground CatholicsChina has about 5 million of themhave resisted. Police last month detained an underground bishop in Wenzhou city. And authorities have stepped up monitoring of underground congregations in the central province of Hebei, according to Catholics there.

On the whole, though, local Catholic leaders are enjoying more contact with Rome than ever before. According to the Vatican, all but about 10 of China’s 70 official bishops have been recognized by the Pope. Even those who remain unrecognizedusually for past criticism of the Vaticanmay still perform legitimate baptisms, hear confessions, and offer other religious services. Nor does the Vatican object when underground bishops come in from the cold and join the official church. “The official church in China is still a church, and its religious practices are valid,” a Vatican official told TIME.

In Hebei, Father Benedictus often cooperates with an official church located just down the lane from his courtyard sanctuary. When the church needed help clearing a vacant lot, he dispatched young parishioners to help. But he is most comfortable staying undergroundbecause he wants to report to Rome. “For Catholics,” says Bishop Zen, “to be free means to be in contact with the Holy See.” China’s Catholics hope that the new Pope will be allowed to stay in closer touch with them than his predecessor.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com