It is rare that the pope writes a public letter to anyone, much less an entire nation's Catholics. But tomorrow, Pope Benedict will do just that, sending a lengthy letter to China's 12 million to 15 million faithful in hopes of healing internal and external rifts that date back more than half a century. There are many reasons for the timing of this unusual act, but among the most important is the existence of a small group of government-registered priests, nuns, and laity trained in U.S. Catholic institutions. The pope's letter speaks about the prospect of reconciliation, but as he surely knows, these American-trained devotees in China's parishes have been heeding that call for almost two decades.
Chinese Catholicism dates back to the 13th century, but the faith's greatest period of growth began in the mid-19th century, when legions of missionaries built a Catholic infrastructure that included highly regarded seminaries and universities. That period came to an end in the mid-1950s, when the Communists began to seize and close Catholic educational institutions. Leading scholars fled or were imprisoned, and those who managed to remain (relatively) free were placed in the unenviable position of either following Vatican directives to defy the Communists or joining the Communist-organized Catholic Patriotic Association.
Though often identified as the "patriotic church," the CPA is actually a heavy-handed regulatory agency that licenses and regulates open—or "registered"—Catholic practice, property, and personnel. The last issue is particularly touchy: The CPA controls local elections to appoint bishops, denying the Vatican its traditional authority to appoint. The underground Catholic Church, meanwhile, refuses to acknowledge the CPA's authority in any matter. Nevertheless, both churches recognize papal spiritual authority and overlap so frequently that high Vatican officials now refer to China's "one church with two faces." For 25 years, mainstream media, Catholic advocacy groups, and many members of the Catholic hierarchy itself have—knowingly or unknowingly—perpetuated the image of a church divided. But the reality, as the pope's letter will indicate, is quite different: For example, underground church communities have been known to worship in registered church buildings.
In addition to philosophical and theological concerns, the underground church draws followers for practical reasons, not least of which is a lack of registered priests to serve China's Catholics, many of whom live far from registered churches and so make do with any priest available. In the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the situation was particularly dire: Estimates suggest that as few as 300 or 400 elderly priests survived the period (today, there are roughly 1,000 underground priests and 1,870 registered priests to serve the intermingling populations). Even today, 22 of China's 138 dioceses lack regular clergy. Partly in reaction to this phenomenon and partly out of a desire to maintain control of China's expanding religious communities, the CPA authorized the re-establishment of Catholic seminaries in 1982. Initially, the quality of instruction offered in these institutions was poor and outdated, delivered by elderly priests who had been cut off from Catholicism outside China since the early 1950s. It was supplemented—when allowed—by foreign scholars, including the Rev. Joseph Zen, who is now the cardinal archbishop of Hong Kong. But for China to have successful seminaries, it also needed Chinese priests with advanced training only available abroad. In 1991, after much bureaucratic wrangling, the Shanghai diocese sent four seminarians to the United States for M.A. degrees in divinity. With tacit approval from the Vatican, Maryknoll, a missionary order, became the coordinator of this Chinese Seminary Teachers & Formators Project, and in 1993, it helped to arrange for the arrival and education of 19 additional seminarians, priests, and sisters.
Today, one of the hallmarks of the project's participants is their willingness to question themselves, their vocations, and their faith. It's an unusual character trait in underground as well as registered Chinese churches, both of which remain extremely traditional, rigidly hierarchical, and reluctant to embrace Vatican II reforms. The Rev. Larry Lewis, the project coordinator, likes to emphasize "the personal, vocational and spiritual upheavals that are evoked in the phenomenon of culture shock," and the transformative results. "You don't need to teach them how to say the rosary. Instead, you help them look at themselves. After they do that, after they doubt, then they can go back and answer the questions of China's youth."