China's divided Catholics seek reconciliation


From NPR. For decades, China's Catholics — estimated at more than 12 million — have been bitterly divided. Some worship in China's government-sanctioned Catholic churches, others in "underground" churches loyal to the Vatican.

But three years ago, Pope Benedict XVI sent a letter to Chinese Catholics — the first from a pope in more than a half-century — urging reconciliation. Yet China's Catholics have struggled to follow these instructions.

Early morning in Sheshan, on the outskirts of Shanghai, Catholics kneel on the ground in front of the pilgrimage shrine to the Virgin Mary, known as the Marian shrine. A cacophony of prayer rises as different groups of pilgrims conduct their services, singing hymns of praise almost loud enough to drown each other out.

Many of these groups of believers refuse to enter the government-sanctioned church nearby. They are part of the "underground" church, even though on this day they are worshipping openly and unimpeded. Some of these believers refuse to take Holy Communion from Beijing's officially appointed bishops, and instead follow bishops chosen by the Vatican.

On this day, members of the government-sanctioned church are also out in force, holding an official procession up the hill at the Sheshan basilica, a cavernous, red-brick building with stained-glass windows, which was built in 1935.

As choirs of white-robed priests sing hymns to the Virgin Mary, priests carry a statue of Mary out of the church, incense wafting over it, while nuns shower it with flower petals.

The clergy in this procession belong to China's official Catholic church, sometimes known as the open church. In a bid to assert authority over China's Catholics, Beijing cut ties with the Vatican in 1951 and began the practice of ordaining its own bishops, some without the approval of the pope.

These parallel acts of worship take place side by side on May 24, which Pope Benedict XVI has designated as the international day of prayer for China. It's a measure of what it means to be a Catholic in China that in the past this pilgrimage spot has been the subject of intense security by police and security forces, sometimes stopping pilgrims from entering.

This year, however, there is little overt security, signaling a thaw. And that is echoed in some parts of China, where government-sanctioned believers and underground communities are taking steps to bridge that divide.

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