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The Beijing Invitation | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | August 25, 2008

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"The authorities still do not trust Chinese Catholics and feel threatened when we exercise our faith." -- John Tong Hon, Coadjutor Bishop of Hong Kong, "Why I Accepted Beijing's Invitation," L'Osservatore Romano, August 20, 2008.

The writers in the sports' pages of the Washington Post have been quite good in giving us a picture of the political side of the Olympic Games in China. The picture is often not pretty, especially when the almost absolute control over every movement of both locals and foreigners is described.

The Post also carried a column of Ariana Eunjung Cha on the religious services that were available to the Olympic athletes ("Burdened By China's Gold Standard", August 16, 2008). Evidently, the Chinese have insisted that only Chinese can conduct religious services of any kind. Neither the International Olympic Committee nor our own government nor other governments secured that religious services would be provided by clergy from the participating countries, as was the custom at past Olympic Games. That is apparently part of the undefined price of these Games.

This background was of special interest when I came across a letter of the Coadjutor Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong explaining why he did accept an invitation to attend the Games. Of course, being Chinese, he is not a "foreign clergyman." The most frequent reason that I have come across about the adamant disallowing of Catholic priests is that they are considered politically suspect. There is, of course, a long history and a lot of theology here.

As I read in another report, "China allows worship only in officially approved churches." Ariana Cha put it, "Previous Olympic hosts welcomed foreign chaplains, but China has banned them from living with the athletes. It has instead pledged that it will provide equivalent services from its pool of state-employed pastors, imams, and other clerics." Just the reading of that last sentence makes one shudder.


In this light, Bishop John Tong Hon's frank comments are quite illuminating. He begins by saying that he enjoys playing basketball himself, though he is a bit older now. I read somewhere that three hundred million Chinese play basketball and that the NBA's biggest market is China. No wonder our team is out to win! [Editor's note: The USA men's and women's basketball teams both won gold medals in Beijing.]

The bishop said that he received the official invitation to attend the Games with "mixed feelings." He was looking forward to seeing some of the events. However, Bishop Tong Hon realized that he was invited but not his superior, Cardinal Zen. In all other cases but the Catholic one, the recognized heads of the religions were invited. Bishop Tong Hon tried to find out from officials he knew why the cardinal was not invited. "They were silent." In any case, Cardinal Zen advised him to go.

At this point, the Hong Kong bishop, to clear the air about what goes on that we do not know about, forthrightly listed the Chinese Catholic bishops who were currently in prison or house arrest. These are not household names, but they should be. He mentions "Bishop Shi En'xiang" who had been "missing for decades." Bishop Liu Guangdong is under "strict surveillance." Bishop Su Zhemin has been "detained for about ten years." "We have had no news of Bishop Yao Liang for a long time after his arrest on March 31, 2005." They have lately discovered that BishopYao Liang is "under house arrest, as is Bishop Julius Jia. Bishop Fan Zhongliang and Bishop Li Side are restricted in their mobility." Bishop Tong Hon adds simply: "These men have suffered and still suffer for our Catholic faith and for loyalty to the Holy Father."

Evidently, it is a dangerous thing to be a Catholic in China. Many withdraw to their own homes for what religious services they do. The bishop's account continues mentioning the problem of pollution and the radical measures that were taken to cope with it. Bishop Tong Hon then draws a parallel: "These inconvenient and costly steps tell the whole world that clean air at the Games is essential. I wish they would also realize the importance of greater religious and social freedom."

The earthquake in Sichuam province in May did see the government open the scene to some foreign journalists. "The whole country rallied as one big family," the Hong Kong bishop observed, "to help the victims, in complete contrast to Myanmar after a cyclone hit that country."

Bishop Tong Hon recalled that the five circles of the Olympic Flag represented the "interconnected aspects of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, justice and peace." He wished China would pay more attention to these.

As an example of what not to do, the Bishop said that there is a Marian Shrine in China known as Our Lady of Sheshan, which is near Shanghai. I have a holy card from there. A day of prayer was called there for May 24. Many Catholics wanted to go but "police restricted access to the shrine and limited the number of visitors." Some "underground priests in Hebei Province" were arrested so that they could not attend "these ceremonies."

This is where Bishop Tong Hon remarked about the government not trusting the Chinese Catholics, even though much is controlled through the Patriotic Church. "What is the final goal of the Olympics?" the Bishop of Hong Kong sums up his thoughts.

There is more to success than medals and new world records. The Olympics display China's material progress. We Christians place more stress on spiritual development.... Our Lord loved his native country, Israel, the whole human race, and also his Heavenly Father. Thus, there is no conflict for us to move from one circle of love to an even more beautiful and greater love. It is no sin for Christians to have mixed feelings, but we also need to feel faith, hope and love.

The Bishop ends with the hope of a happy outcome, in spite of it all.


This moving account, no doubt, speaks for itself. China, to be sure, is not the only country in the world that insists on complete control of religion within its frontiers. The modern popes, whenever they get a chance, insist that freedom of religion is the first freedom. Clearly, there is still some way to go.

The line that sticks most in my memory on reading of these affairs is that from the People's Daily on-line ("Chinese clergy will provide religious services at Olympic Village", July 11, 2008): "In another few days, Sister Yu Shuqin will go to the Catholic church in Olympic Village, where she and 16 other church members will serve as clergy. She is a staff member of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association Beijing Division Foreign Affairs Office." Though no doubt Sister Yu is a nice lady, no one in the world could possibly cite this passage as an example of "freedom of religion." I have no doubt that the Chinese government itself is quite clear that it is not.

This last passage should be read in the context of a comment of the American 3,000 meter steeplechase runner, Josh McAdams, a Mormon. He is cited by Ariana Cha as saying: "Not only are the services conducted in broken English, but also most staff members do not have experience with sports or with foreigners. 'They should allow chaplains—perhaps one from each country—to be in the village. This is important because for many of us, athletics is not only physical and mental but spiritual.'"

"The authorities still do not trust Catholics and feel threatened when we exercise our faith." As I read that line of the Hong Kong bishop over again, from what I know of how the Chinese government conceives itself and its almost complete control of its people, perhaps it is right to feel threatened. As Bishop Tong Hon intimated, "Our Lord loved his native country, Israel, the whole human race, and His heavenly Father."

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:

China's Thriving Catholics: A Report From Beijing's South Cathedral | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | Aug. 20, 2008
Two Chinese Churches? Or One? | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
On Writing A History of Christianity in China | Preface to Christians In China: A.D. 600 to 2000 | Fr. Jean-Pierre Charbonnier
Two Weeks in the Eternal City: From the Vatican Secret Archives to the Basilica of St. Charles Borromeo | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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