Understanding the style of the pope

HAS THE VATICAN succumbed to the pressures from Beijing? Has China managed to buy its silence in these trying times for Hong Kong? Queries such as these have become greatly discussed topics in both Church and secular news media in recent days. In the wake of China enacting the National Security Law, Pope Francis came under severe criticism for drifting from his prepared text during his public audience on July 5 and omitting a reference expressing his solidarity with the people of Hong Kong. Why is the pope silent? 

The Church-related media have been voicing their concerns and speculations over China and Hong Kong, expecting the Vatican to respond to the emerging situation in the region. The two-year timeframe of the provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops in China will reach its expiration date this September. What will be its future?

While the Vatican continues to be silent on these disturbing questions, taking into consideration some of the previous teachings and approaches of Pope Francis will help us to understand the mind of the pope on the Church in China. At the beginning of his papacy seven years ago, the pope outlined his manifesto through his first apostolic exhortation, titled Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel). 

In passages 222 to 237, he deliberates on “the common good and the promotion of peace,” and articulates four principles: time is greater than space; unity prevails over conflict; realities are more important than ideas; and the whole is greater than the part. He had these thoughts with him even when he was the provincial superior of the Jesuits back in Argentina.

He encourages people to face conflicts head on: “In this way, it becomes possible to build communion amid disagreement, but this can only be achieved by those great persons willing to go beyond the surface of the conflict and to see others in their deepest dignity. This requires acknowledging a principle: unity is greater than conflict” (EG, 228). 

The pope drifting from the press-handout and subsequently omitting of the references to Hong Kong during his Angelus address on July 5 was perhaps a deliberate one, to let Beijing know of the mind of the pope while not offending them in the process; confronting conflicts head on while “respecting the dignity” of the other. That explains the silence of the Pope. 

Through the seven years of his pontificate, Pope Francis is undoubtedly been reshaping the Church. The appointment of bishops who reflect his pastoral style and priorities is a key factor for the pope in shepherding the Church. Some of his recent choices shed light on his priorities: extensive pastoral experience and sound theology, and a missionary impulse. It is also common that rumours play their part in stirring up speculation on who would lead the diocese. Perhaps, such rumours do have a positive effect too: it is a way to test possible reactions to an appointment! 

Critics believe that the pope fails to understand the futility of dialoguing with communists, who are essentially hostile to any religion and that such attempts at dialogue do more harm than good to the Church in China. But the Church, in its 2,000 years of existence, has always been persecuted with emperors over centuries seeking its annihilation, yet the Body of Christ stands strong. And that is the greatest assurance for the Church in China: The Body of Christ cannot be destroyed despite being crucified. Jose

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