Pope urges Chinese Catholics to trust, reconcile after…

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VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis urged Chinese Catholics on Wednesday to trust him and make concrete gestures of reconciliation following a landmark deal over bishop appointments that is aimed at ending decades of estrangement between the Vatican and Beijing.

In a letter to the Chinese faithful, Francis also called for greater dialogue between local priests and government authorities to ensure that ordinary church activities can be carried out, while encouraging the opening of “a new chapter” in official bilateral cooperation.

He said the aim is to “initiate an unprecedented process that we hope will help to heal the wounds of the past, restore full communion among all Chinese Catholics, and lead to a phase of greater fraternal cooperation.”

The letter follows the deal signed Saturday governing the naming of bishops in China, an issue that has vexed relations for decades. The agreement regularizes the status of seven bishops who had been appointed by Beijing over the years without papal consent, and sets out a process of dialogue going forward to name new ones. Francis says he, not Beijing, ultimately will name new bishops.

While the deal addressed a crucial aspect of church governance in China, it didn’t address more pastoral issues of unifying split communities, which the letter published Wednesday aims to do.

“The Catholic community in China is called to be united, so as to overcome the divisions of the past that have caused, and continue to cause great suffering in the hearts of many pastors and faithful,” Francis wrote. “All Christians, none excluded, must now offer gestures of reconciliation and communion.”

China’s estimated 12 million Catholics are split between those belonging to the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which is outside the pope’s authority, and an underground church loyal to the pope. Underground priests and parishioners are frequently detained and harassed.

Francis – and before him Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II – had tried to unite the two communities, including a letter Benedict penned to the Chinese faithful in 2007. Years of negotiations kicked into high gear over a year ago, culminating in the deal signed Saturday.

Unlike Benedict’s 2007 letter, which labeled the Patrotic Association “incompatible” with Catholic doctrine and took a hard line in asserting the exclusive right of the pope to name bishops, Francis’ tone was far more conciliatory and focused on moving past previous differences. He didn’t even name the Patriotic Association or insist on his right to name bishops.

He has told reporters, however, that after a period of dialogue he would ultimately name new leaders of the church.

The letter provided some detail of the process involved, which includes ordinary priests and lay faithful taking part in the nomination process. That lay participation is unknown in the West, where such nominations are put to the Vatican for consideration by the local hierarchy and the local Vatican ambassador.

Francis urged the Chinese faithful “to join in seeking good candidates” who are not mere functionaries but are “authentic shepherds … committed to working generously in the service of God’s people, especially the poor and the most vulnerable.”

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