The Vatican

Pope Francis and China: diplomatic strategy

Pope Francis' words addressed to China at the Regina Coeli on May 22 come against the backdrop of the renewal of the bishop appointment agreement and the arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, who was taken to prison on May 11 and only subsequently released on bail.

Andrea Gagliarducci-May 27, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes
pope francis

The Pope with the Bishop of Hong Kong, Stephen Chow Sau-yan, on March 17, 2022. ©CNS photo/Vatican Media

Translation of the article into English

After praying the Regina Coeli on May 22, Pope Francis prayed for the Catholics of China, commending them to Mary Help of Christians, who is venerated on May 24 and, in particular, at the Shrine of Sheshan. It is not the first time that the Pope mentions this anniversary. And it could not be otherwise: Benedict XVI had established May 24 as a day of prayer for China in his 2007 letter to the Catholics of China, and so it has been a fixed anniversary for 15 years.

However, the words of Pope Francis were included in a more dramatic picture. It is true that since 2008, the first year in which the prayer was held, the missionaries have not ceased to denounce the obstacles posed by Beijing for the pilgrimage to the Sheshan shrine. And it is true that, with the pandemic, the shrine was closed for two years, so that in 2021 it could not be part of the shrines that made up the pandemic prayer marathon proclaimed by Pope Francis in May - and while the shrine was closed, the nearby amusement park had just reopened.

Pope Francis' words, however, are set in a broader context: the negotiations for the renewal of the agreement between the Holy See and China on the appointment of bishops, which expires in October 2022; and the totally surprising arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, who was taken to prison on May 11 and only subsequently released on bail.

The Regina Coeli of May 22

Pope Francis' greeting at the end of the Regina Coeli on May 22 was full of signs. First of all, the Pope renewed to the Catholics of China "the assurance of my spiritual closeness: I follow with attention and participation the lives and vicissitudes of the faithful and pastors, often complex, and I pray for them every day."

Precisely in these words there was a reference to the affair of Cardinal Zen, who will be tried on September 19. The Pope had invited then to unite in prayer "so that the Church in China, in freedom and tranquility, may live in effective communion with the universal Church and exercise her mission of proclaiming the Gospel to all, thus also offering a positive contribution to the spiritual and material progress of society".

The second part, in fact, called for greater freedom for the Church, and greater religious freedom. The power of diplomacy, that of saying things without saying them and above all without distorting the Chinese interlocutor.

Diplomatic balance

The issue is that, in the Vatican, it is not taken for granted that the agreement will be renewed. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, said in an interview that he hoped to change some part of the agreement. And Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican's "foreign minister," meeting with EU ambassadors at a closed-door lunch, reportedly said that if China wanted a more permanent, perhaps permanent, agreement, the Holy See would say no.

On the other hand, that the Holy See wanted to give relative weight to the agreement is denoted by a detail: the agreement was signed on September 22, 2018, the first day of Pope Francis' trip to the Baltic countries.

As is known, both the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Relations with the States follow the Pope on his trips. In choosing that date, it was necessary for the Holy See to sign the agreement with his counterpart, Wang Chao, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, then Monsignor Antoine Camilleri.

If dates matter, it seems clear that this day was chosen because it would have been inevitable to have a smaller delegation, with an agreement signed by the number 3s and not by the number 1s.

The agreement was then renewed in October 2020, and has so far yielded two results: that all bishops in China are considered to be in communion with Rome, and that only six bishops in four years have been appointed under the agreement.

The terms of the agreement are unknown, although there has been speculation that the Holy See will participate with the government in a review process of candidates for the episcopate until the Pope appoints a bishop who is also acceptable to Beijing. However, the agreement would preserve the Pope's full autonomy in the choice of bishops.

Certainly, the relationship between the Holy See and China is an unstable equilibrium, and the sudden arrest of Cardinal Zen is proof of this. Following the arrest, the Holy See made it known that it is closely following developments.

Therefore, there was no formal protest, also because, China being one of the few countries in the world that does not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, there were no proper channels for a formal complaint.

The Cardinal, however, seemed a bit self-sacrificing. An advocate of democracy in Hong Kong, which was always strongly opposed to the agreement, Cardinal Zen went so far as to try to avoid the renewal by going to Rome and trying to be received by the Pope. But he was relatively successful. He met only briefly with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State. It was the definitive signal that the Pope would not stop to listen to reason about the deal. The latest in a series of signals.

Signals to China

Earlier, in October 2019, Pope Francis had sent a telegram to Hong Kong while flying over its territory on his way to Japan. On the return flight he had downplayed the importance of the telegram, saying it was a courtesy telegram sent to all states. These are partially misleading statements, since Hong Kong is not a state, but it is appreciated by Beijing, to the point that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geng Shuang, had stressed that "China appreciates the Pope's friendship and kindness".

And not only that. On his itinerary to Japan, Pope Francis had flown over China and Taiwan. In the telegram sent to Beijing, he greeted China as a "nation"; while the greetings in Taipei were addressed to the "people of Taiwan," even though the nunciature in Taipei was significantly called the nunciature of China.

In July 2020, Pope Francis had also decided to omit from his words at the end of the Angelus an appeal in favor of Hong Kong, at a delicate moment of renewal of the agreement.

These were all clear signals to China, which he appreciated.

Today, Pope Francis is trying to be careful not to anger the "Red Dragon", but negotiations for a new agreement seem more difficult than ever. China would like a greater involvement of the Vatican, and could even put on the table the possibility of a non-resident representative of the Holy See. The Catholic world asks for more prudence, in a situation that, in any case, the Government does not facilitate.

The arrest of Cardinal Zen turned out to be a pretext, a way of flexing muscles. The accusation, in the end, is not of foreign interference, but of failing to properly register a humanitarian fund of which the cardinal and five other members of the democratic world were trustees.

A few things, after all, but enough to send a message to the Church: everything is under control.

For the Holy See, however, it is worth continuing the dialogue. "We are aware that we are shaking hands and that the blade of the knife can make us bleed, but it is necessary to talk to everyone," explains a monsignor who has participated in the negotiations in the past.

In the end, agreement always seems a possibility to consider. After all, an old Vatican diplomatic saying holds that "agreements are made with people who cannot be trusted."

The authorAndrea Gagliarducci

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