Pope offers China a recognition swap

January 15, 1995|By New York Times News Service

MANILA, Philippines -- In a radio message beamed to China yesterday, Pope John Paul II offered a hard-nosed bargain to Beijing: recognize papal authority over China's Catholics in return for the Vatican's acknowledgment of the country's officially sponsored church.

If accepted, the deal would represent a major departure for Chinese authorities, who have long resisted any foreign intrusion into their affairs and who maintain rigorous controls on the country's millions of Roman Catholics.

China's Patriotic Association -- the government-supervised church -- does not permit Catholics to recognize the spiritual supremacy of the pope and rejects the Vatican's right, exercised in most other countries, to appoint bishops.

For its part, the Vatican does not acknowledge the Patriotic Association and supports clandestine worshipers among China's often-persecuted Catholics who recognize papal authority.

The issue will come to a climax today when an anticipated 2 million people attend a Mass here in honor of the church's World Youth Day. Five priests from the Patriotic Association have asked to join the pope at the altar to concelebrate the Mass with him -- a move that would imply Vatican recognition of the official Chinese church.

But in a message to China sent by the church's Manila-based radio station, the pope insisted on what he called "sincere acceptance of the unchanging principles laid down by Christ for his church" -- including belief in the pope as the successor of St. Peter.

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the pope's spokesman, told reporters that local church authorities here would insist "where necessary" that priests concelebrating the Mass with the pope declare their allegiance to him.

It was not known whether the representatives of the Patriotic Association had agreed.

The Vatican's aim is to open the way for a new relationship with Beijing on its own terms to permit Catholic missionaries to evangelize in the huge nation. At present only 3 percent of Asians profess Catholicism, most of them in the heavily Catholic Philippines.

The pope has made impassioned pleas here for a broader effort to gather souls.

Chinese Christians registered with the Beijing authorities number some 8 million, 3 million of them Catholics, according to Chinese estimates. The Vatican says it is aware of 3 million to 5 million Chinese Catholics but says that the number could rise sharply if restrictions on worship were removed.

For several years, the Vatican has been training what it calls a task force of more than 40 missionary priests to evangelize in China if they are allowed to do so. The pope is to visit them tomorrow at the San Carlos Seminary here.

Mr. Navarro-Valls said that two groups of Catholics from clandestine churches recognizing papal authority had arrived in Manila from China to join the World Youth Day celebration.

He declined to give details on how they had traveled here and said the pope had not met with either them or the representatives of the Patriotic Association.

The pope's visit to Manila, which started Thursday, is part of an 11-day tour to Papua, New Guinea; Australia; and Sri Lanka. It is by far his most arduous trip since a broken leg last April forced him to cancel trips to Belgium and the United States.

His slow recovery from hip replacement surgery has obliged him walk with a cane, and there has been concern over the impact of the long journey on his health.

While his schedule has been reduced compared with earlier papal voyages, the pope yesterday put in a busy working day, holding a long open-air Mass in the morning before meeting with Philippine bishops, visiting Radio Veritas and going to a three-hour prayer vigil with some 450,000 young people.

"Very good young people," he told the crowd last night in impromptu remarks as the ceremonies drew to a close. "Incredible but it is true. Very good young people."

And, taking his cane, he used it to wave to the crowd.

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