A year after it was released, Pope Benedict's letter to Chinese Catholics has achieved some positive results but more remains to be done, commentators say.
Pope Benedict's June 30 2007 letter acknowledged the difficulties Chinese Catholics have faced in relations with their government as well as among themselves, while encouraging reconciliation between the "underground" and "open" Catholic communities, UCA News reports.
The letter also announced the revocation of all prior pastoral directives special faculties previously granted to address pastoral necessities in difficult times.
In Zhejiang province, eastern China, Bishop Xu Honggen of Suzhou told UCA News his diocese has engaged in dialogue with two underground priests working there. These priests have now agreed to work openly and government officials have approved this, he revealed.
Referring to a point in the pope's letter which states that "every cleric must be incardinated in a particular Church or in an Institute of consecrated life and must exercise his own ministry in communion with the diocesan Bishop," he said the open Church sees no problem in this.
However, he noted that in some places, some underground clergy still work in areas outside their dioceses. The Vatican's China commission should address this matter to avoid conflicts, he said.
He believes communion between the underground and open Church communities "would move much more easily once the Vatican and China build ties."
Underground Catholics have refused to join the open Church because they regard it as controlled by the government approved Catholic Patriotic Association.
In Tianjin diocese, which has no open-Church bishop, most open-Church priests pledged obedience to underground Bishop Stephen Li Side of Tianjin earlier this year, according to Church sources. Bishop Li has allowed those priests to continue to administer their parishes.
Teresa, an underground Tianjin Catholic, told UCA News more underground Catholics are attending Masses in Xikai Cathedral at which open-Church priests preside, and fewer are praying at the Marian grotto outside. Previously, they refused to enter the cathedral.
However, another Tianjin underground Catholic complained the local Church is "still under the control" of clergy with links to the Catholic Patriotic Association.
Retired Bishop Pius Jin Peixian of Liaoning told UCA News communion will be difficult to achieve unless underground Catholics stop discriminating against their open-Church counterparts. He feels the recommendations the pope made in his letter are difficult to implement and so have not changed the China Church much.
In Hong Kong, Anthony Lam Sui-ki, senior researcher of the diocesan Holy Spirit Study Centre, told UCA News that although not everyone is following the letter's guidelines, it has at least laid down some long term rules.
It has also allowed the Chinese government to understand the Church's vision and principles of its structure, he continued.
While Lam stressed the letter does not call for unity in the'China Church's structures, he sees some attempt at "communion" with underground Catholics now seeming "less resistant about joining the liturgy" in the open Church.
Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association vice president Anthony Liu Bainian told UCA News the pope's letter has enhanced the spirituality of Chinese Catholics.
Kwun Ping-hung, a Hong Kong-based observer of China-Holy See relations, noted that the first World Prayer Day for the China Church on May 24 was a failure for both the Vatican and the Chinese government.
The Vatican might have wanted to use the occasion to "unite Catholics," but government restrictions on pilgrimages thwarted this purpose. The situation also negatively affected the government's harmonious relations with mainland clergy, he told UCA News.
Church Observers See Some Positive Results One Year After Pope's Letter (UCA News, 16/7/08)