Pope Francis could not ignore them. Since his arrival in Mongolia, Friday, September 1, red star-spangled flag in hand, they have followed all stages of the pontifical trip. From the official welcome in the central square of Ulaanbaatar on Friday to the mass in the city’s ice hockey stadium on Sunday, Chinese Catholics slipped into the audience at all the events organized at the occasion of Pope Francis’ visit to this Central Asian country, landlocked between China and Russia.
One hundred to two hundred faithful wearing masks on their faces and sometimes scarves on their heads, terrified at the idea of seeing television cameras approaching, begging journalists not to reveal their identities so as not to put them in danger.
Warm greetings to the “noble Chinese people”
Also, when at the end of the Sunday Mass celebrated in the presence of 2,000 people, including several dozen Chinese, Francis sent a “warm greeting” to the “noble Chinese people”, wishing them “the best”, the words of the pope were greeted with applause.
Holding the hands of the current bishop of Hong Kong, the Jesuit Stephen Chow Sau-yan, and his immediate predecessor, Cardinal John Tong Hon, standing beside him, the pope continued: “I ask Chinese Catholics to ‘be good Christians and good citizens. » A statement immediately promoted by the Vatican media.
This double symbolic request comes as relations between Beijing and the Vatican continue to become strained, after the violation of a provisional bilateral agreement on the appointment of bishops, concluded in 2018 and renewed twice.
“It is clearly a message sent to the Chinese authorities to reassure them, and to tell them that he is not calling Catholics to resistance,” explains Michel Chambon, director of the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics.
Chinese bishops under ban
Since the start of the Pope’s historic visit to Mongolia, the Chinese question has been omnipresent, more or less explicitly. The presence of Mgr Stephen Chow Sau-yan owes nothing to chance, as he has become, in recent months, a central figure in the Chinese file at the Vatican. Created cardinal in September and considered by the Vatican as “a bridge” with the Chinese Church, he went to Beijing last April to meet with the Chinese authorities, and should, in the coming months, visit throughout inland China.
If the Jesuit bishop was able to go to Ulaanbaatar to meet the pope, this was not the case for Catholic leaders from interior China, who were formally forbidden by the Beijing government from going to Mongolia on this occasion. . Before his speech at the end of mass on Sunday evening, Francis had multiplied subliminal messages in Beijing, praising Mongolia as a democratic model and a country of religious freedom, and thanking the authorities for fighting against nuclear weapons. A weapon owned by the country’s two neighbors.
The day before, in front of the leaders of the country’s small Catholic community, gathered at the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral, the Pope had also insisted: “Governments and secular institutions have nothing to fear from the evangelizing action of the Church because it has no political agenda to pursue. »
“China is very distressed by this trip”
The first hours of the trip gave rise to a formal exchange between Beijing and Rome, during the flight over Chinese territory by the papal plane. In this very formal message, Francis assures the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, of his prayers for “the well-being of the nation”, invoking “the divine blessing of unity and peace”. China then declared that it wanted to “strengthen mutual trust” with the Vatican and welcomed words in the pope’s message that “reflected friendship and goodwill”.
Several sources indicate that Beijing is following Francis’ entire trip to Mongolia very closely. “China is very distressed by this trip,” confirms a Vatican source. But they are unable to see that he is outside their political categories. We don’t want power. »