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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis wrapped up his historic trip to Mongolia by attempting to redefine the Church's mission. On the plane trip back to Vatican City, he further offered some thoughts on China-Vatican relations, which are difficult to reconcile with the lived experiences of Chinese Catholics.
In a prepared talk on Monday, the pontiff stated, "Another myth needing to be dispelled is that the Catholic Church, distinguished throughout the world for its great commitment to works of social promotion, does all this to proselytize, as if caring for others were a way of enticing people to 'join up.'"
After Mass on Sunday, the pope asserted, "These two brother bishops — the emeritus of Hong Kong [Cdl. John Tong Hon] and the current bishop of Hong Kong [Bp. Stephen Chow]. I would like to take advantage of their presence to send a warm greeting to the noble Chinese people."
"I wish the best for all the (Chinese) people, to go forward, to always progress," he continued. "And to Chinese Catholics, I ask to be good Christians and good citizens."
On the flight from Mongolia back to Vatican City, the pontiff offered journalists a peek into the secretive China-Vatican accord.
"There is a commission working for the appointment of bishops — [the] Chinese government and the Vatican — and there has been dialogue for some time," he revealed.
"I think that we need to advance further into the religious aspect to understand each other more," the pontiff continued. "The Chinese must not think that the Church does not accept their culture and their values and that the Church is dependent on a foreign power."
The Vatican secretary of state, Cdl. Pietro Parolin, presides over the commission, which Francis called "friendly."
"They are doing a fine job. Relations are like this: Let's say that they are underway," Francis claimed. "And I have great respect for the Chinese people."
The China-Vatican accord was first signed in 2018 as a two-year provisional agreement. It has been renewed twice and is currently in effect.
Roughly 200 people from mainland China attended Pope Francis' Mass in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on Sunday.
One Catholic named Li asserted he has a message for the pontiff: "Pope, please save our Chinese (Church)!"
"Here (in Mongolia) everyone has no fear, they are not controlled," he explained. "We have a Church in China, but if there's a church you see around, it works for the government."
Li discussed how there are still many in China who are members of the underground Church — those faithful to the Holy See as opposed to the so-called official Church, a branch of the Chinese Communist Party. This divide is still strong despite the China-Vatican accord.
In 2020, Cdl. Joseph Zen, Hong Kong's archbishop emeritus, broke down what he called the Vatican's "complete sellout" of China's underground Church — those faithful to the Holy See:
The first step was that secret agreement [Vatican-China agreement reached in September 2018] for the selection of bishops, and then the legitimization of the seven excommunicated bishops — asking the legitimate underground bishops to step down — and then, last June came out that document — the so-called pastoral guidance encouraging people to join the [Catholic] Patriotic Association.
Li went on to describe the precarious position the faithful face in communist China.
"In China, everything is hiding — we can't send a photo or anything to our group or anything. It's not good," he asserted.
"One of my friends posted a photo in our Chinese chat group, but no one replied, because they're worried that just by talking about this, the government will get you in trouble," Li continued. "They are questioning someone even just staying in jail."
Several years ago, his own underground community raised funds for their priest to build a church, but that church was closed after two years.
"Then we sent money again and they built another one, and it closed again," Li added. "Even if we are hiding, it doesn't work."
Some Catholics are baffled at Francis' claim that it is a "myth" to believe the Church seeks to bring those outside into Her fold.
In his 1926 encyclical Rerum Ecclesiae, Pius XI stated:
The Church has no other reason for existence than, by developing the Kingdom of Christ on earth, to make mankind participate in the effects of His saving Redemption. Whoever, by Divine Commission, takes the place on earth of Jesus Christ, becomes thereby the Chief Shepherd who, far from being able to rest content with simply guiding and protecting the Lord's Flock which has been confided to him to rule, fails in his special duty and obligations if he does not strive by might and main to win over and to join to Christ all who are still without the Fold.
Pius XI's teaching echoed the Great Commission Our Lord Himself gave to the Church when He instructed the disciples present at the Ascension: "Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 28:19).
Pope Francis' unusual remark that appears to conflict with the Church's purpose — coupled with his praise of the Vatican's relations with the Chinese government — have faithful Catholics wondering why the current pontiff seems to be cozier with a passing communist regime than with immutable Church teaching.