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In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI established a “day of prayer for the Church in China” on May 24 each year. That day is marked in China as the feast of Our Lady of Sheshan, the patronal shrine of the nation in Shanghai. In various parts of the universal Church the date marks the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians. This year the day of prayer happily coincides with the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church, which falls the Monday after Pentecost.

There is much to pray for. The Catholics of China are a beleaguered flock, and their new shepherd will soon be facing the ravenous wolves. Last week, Father Stephen Chow Sau-yan was named the new bishop of Hong Kong. He is so reluctant to take the job that he will not assume office until next December, even though the usual canonical rules require him to start in four months. 

The Church can set the date of his ordination. Beijing’s communist regime will set the date of his imprisonment. The Vatican would be wise to use the time between now and then to decide how it will handle that eventuality. The future of the Catholic Church in China may depend upon it.

President Xi Jinping's regime has made it abundantly clear that it intends to pulverize whatever remnants of religious liberty remain in China. The persecutions of the Falun Gong are well known. The concentration camps for Uighur Muslims are internationally documented. The anti-Christian measures have ranged from sacrilegious (mandating that Xi’s picture be displayed in church) to indoctrinating (insisting that catechetical materials follow the principles of “Sinicization”) to tyrannical (banning children from going to church altogether).

Hong Kong’s Catholic bishop died unexpectedly in January 2019. In September 2018, the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China had concluded a secret “provisional” agreement on the appointment of bishops in China. Shortly after that, authority over religious affairs in China was transferred to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The provisional agreement, still secret, was renewed in October 2020. The Holy See now has, de facto, an agreement with the CCP on the appointment of bishops.

The provisional agreement does not apply to Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan. Nevertheless, it could still affect them. The Holy See’s first choice for Hong Kong was Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing. Pope Francis reportedly approved him, but changed his mind when the Chinese regime objected to Ha’s public attendance at pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019. So the search was for a bishop who was Catholic enough for the Holy See, but not too Catholic for Beijing. On May 17, 2021, Pope Francis settled upon a fellow Jesuit, Father Chow, the current provincial of the Jesuits in China.

Father Chow, in a highly uncharacteristic bit of candor regarding episcopal appointments, revealed that when asked last December, he refused the appointment. Apparently the screws were then tightened by the Jesuit pope and the Jesuit superior general, and Chow finally relented.

One can sympathize with Father Chow. Beijing has effectively abolished the “one country two systems” guarantee of limited liberty in Hong Kong. Repression in the former British colony has been ramped up, taking a particularly Catholic dimension in the cases of Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai, two devout Catholics in the leadership of the Hong Kong democracy movement. They were jailed on Good Friday, victims of an old-fashioned communist show trial. In response, the Holy See kept silent.

The CCP now knows two facts about the Holy See: That Pope Francis will not appoint a bishop supportive of the democracy movement, and that he will not publicly protest the jailing of prominent lay Catholics. The next step is obvious. Will the Holy See object if the bishop of Hong Kong is imprisoned and the local Church effectively decapitated?

Beijing will want to test how far it can go in eliminating Catholic life in China. In July 2012, Thaddeus Ma Daqin was ordained the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai. At his ordination, he publicly resigned from the “Patriotic Association,” Beijing’s officially-sanctioned Catholic association. He was arrested and imprisoned immediately, and remains under house arrest to this day.

Shanghai is a vitally important diocese in China, but Hong Kong is more internationally connected to the universal Church. If the CCP can do in Hong Kong what it has already done in Shanghai, Catholic life in China will be compromised for generations, effectively abandoned by the universal Church.

A day of prayer for the Catholics in China is necessary. The CCP will soon test whether those prayers are backed up by words and firm resolve in Rome.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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