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China calls, Vaticn responds: diplomat's trip tests waters, may benefit 7 million Catholics.

Diplomat's trip tests waters, may benefit 7 million Catholics

VATICAN CITY - Vatican diplomacy is sometimes a matter of putting the right person in the right place at the right time.

In recent days, the right place was China, where millions of Catholics live their faith virtually cut off from Pope John Paul II and the church hierarchy in Rome.

The right time was early September, two weeks after a Chinese foreign ministry official signaled that his communist government was ready to improve relations with the Vatican.

The right person was French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a genial Vatican official frequently dispatched to trouble spots around the globe. His job on these missions is quite simple: Test the waters and keep a high profile of Vatican goodwill.

"It was a courtesy visit, and the cardinal was not in charge of any negotiations. The most important thing is that he was invited by an official organization of China. This is a positive development and something we can follow up on tomorrow," said one Vatican diplomat.

China observers in and outside the Vatican agreed that Etchegaray's Sept. 3-8 trip was a milestone in Vatican-China relations. Invited to attend the seventh National Athletic Games in Beijing, Etchegaray was the first cardinal/head of a Vatican department to be invited to China since the 1949 Communist Revolution, when an era of systematic religious repression began.

"This marks the beginning of a new phase that could lead to impressive results in a relatively short time," said Fr. Angelo Lazzarotto, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and a longtime China expert.

One Vatican official said the cardinal's visit - which he called "extremely delicate and predominantly political" - had caused a real stir of excitement in curia offices. Accompanied by a China expert at the Vatican secretariat of state, Etchegaray was able to hold talks with a Cabinet-level director of religious affairs and a vice chairman of the National People's Congress. But the 71-year-old cardinal, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is technically not a "diplomat" - a distinction that is useful both to the Vatican and China.

"They're using Cardinal Etchegaray as a pathfinder. Before real diplomacy arrives, the |prediplomats' have to pass through," said Lazzarotto.

It was inevitable that, in the context of a sporting event, the visit would be cast as the start of "pingpong diplomacy," similar to the U.S.-China cultural thaw that presaged diplomatic relations 20 years ago. But if this is pingpong diplomacy, the first volleys were exchanged well before September's athletic games.

Last fall, Etchegaray - who first visited China as an archbishop in 1980 - held an important but unpublicized meeting in Lourdes, France, with Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan, head of the state-recognized Beijing diocese. The two reportedly discussed how to ease China-Vatican tensions, particularly over government restrictions on church relations with Rome and the role of the government-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Bishop Fu, a ranking member of the "patriotic" church, was said to have asked for a Vatican gesture to start the ball rolling. Several months later, in June, some saw this gesture in a surprise statement by the pope, who Praised China's greatness "as a people, as a history, as something important in the world' and said he wanted to visit there soon. The Chinese volleyed back in August, announcing that the government was eager to improve relations.

This isn't the first time China has raised hopes about improving relations, and the Vatican has no illusions about the difficulties that exist. There is a fundamental fear that China doesn't really grasp how the church works - particularly the guiding role of the pope.

"There can't be a serious dialogue with the Holy See if the pope is not recognized at the head of the church. If they consider this interference in the internal affairs of China, we cannot understand each other," said Lazzarotto.

China's announcement that it had freed two lay Catholic leaders from prison was welcome news in Rome. But the timing of this "concession" - to coincide with Etchegaray's arrival - only reminded some church observers of how China makes political use of its strict control over religious life.

The difficulty in starting a dialogue also was illustrated by the fact that Etchegaray did not celebrate public Mass or meet with local Catholics during his visit. That would have raised the sticky issue of divisions between the government-backed hierarchy and the underground church that recognizes papal authority. The Vatican also recognizes that the 300,000 Catholics in Taiwan view the idea of Sino-Vatican rapprochment with suspicion. A consistent demand of Beijing is that the Vatican cut diplomatic ties to Taiwan, which the mainland regards as one of its provinces.

Many Catholics (in Taiwan) don't believe China will ever grant real religious freedom," raid one Vatican source. The Taiwanese also are afraid that if relations are restored, the Vatican might pay less pastoral attention to them, he said.

Some but not all church leaders in Taiwan said they understood the Vatican's moves. Franciscan Auxiliary Bishop Leonard Hsu Ying-fa of Taipei, secretary general of the Regional Episcopal Conference of China, said the motives of Etchegaray's visit were unclear.

Is it necessary for a cardinal to attend the opening ceremony of a sports event in Beijing.?" he asked, according to UCA News, an Asia church news agency based in Taiwan that monitors the church in China. At the Vatican, the answer is yes. It's not because of blind optimism, but because any hint of change in the worlds largest country - to the benefit of the largest country - to the benefit of the estimated 7 million Catholics there - cannot be ignored.
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Title Annotation:Cardinal Roger Etchegaray
Author:Thavis, John
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 24, 1993
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