Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I will be in Shanghai, China, for about a month.
Does the Church allow me to go to the Chinese
state-sponsored Mass and receive Communion?
— T.W., Athens, Georgia
A: Although the situation of the state-approved Church in China is very complex, a visiting Catholic could attend Mass and receive Communion there without implying any particular acceptance of the current unfortunate ecclesial situation.
The Ecumenical Directory permits Catholics to receive Communion at the liturgies of Orthodox and other Eastern Churches not in communion with the Holy See.
These Chinese "official" Catholic Churches, albeit in an irregular situation, almost invariably desire to be in full communion with the Holy Father. They usually pray for him at Mass. And in some cases these Churches have been recognized in some way or other by both the government and the Holy See. Hence, it is possible to receive Communion at Masses in these Churches.
As testified by the Holy Father's May 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics, the Holy See is actively attempting to bring about the reconciliation of the Church in China and to find a way come to an understanding with the government that will allow it to establish proper relations with all Chinese Catholics.
Catholics traveling in China should certainly try to attend a Mass in a community that is in full communion with the Holy See. Since this is not always possible or prudent, however, they may choose to attend an "official Church." But they would not be bound to do so in order to fulfill their Sunday obligation.
The Church's long history knows several situations in which pastors and faithful have been forced to choose between loyalty to the Church and to government policy. During the French Revolution, for example, all clergy were obliged by law to take the revolutionary oath of loyalty to the "Civil Constitution of the Clergy." That document undermined the Church's independence and connection to Rome.
A few accepted the oath from revolutionary conviction, many more out of fear, and others so as not to leave their faithful deprived of the sacraments in a moment of crisis and war. There was also confusion from Church authorities regarding the correct attitude to take, especially since the changes were primarily disciplinary and not dogmatic in character.
Those who courageously refused to take the oath accepted the increasing legal penalties imposed by the state. At first, there were fines and removal from their dioceses or parishes. As the revolution descended into terror, those who refused to swear had to increasingly face exile, imprisonment and death.
God repaid and vindicated the sacrifice of those who suffered. The Church in France rose from the ashes of the Revolution and enjoyed almost a century of growth characterized by the foundation of numerous new religious congregations, international charitable organizations, great missionary zeal, renewed devotion to the Eucharist and the Sacred Heart, and a wealth of saintly figures such as the John Vianney, Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam and Thérèse of Lisieux.
Only God can pronounce final judgment on those who were weaker. For many the oath was no protection from revolutionary harshness, and one can be sure that in many cases the martyrs also died for them and won for them the grace to repent and return to the path of fidelity.
While the Chinese experience is only partially similar and the suffering has been far more protracted, we can be certain that the salvific logic of the Cross will once more bear fruit and the sacrifice of those who remain faithful will not be in vain.
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Follow-up: Chinese State-Sponsored Mass [5-13-2008]
In the wake of our comments on the Catholic Church in China (April 29), a priest with long experience working in Beijing wrote that he was "disappointed" that I might have given the impression that we are dealing with two and not one Chinese Catholic Churches.
I am not totally convinced that what I wrote left such an impression. By placing the word "official" in quotation marks I sought to emphasize that I was adopting a frequently used expression that is not totally accurate.
Also, by drawing a parallel with the situation of the French Revolution I hoped to show that we are not dealing with two Churches but with two ways of responding to an unjustified interference by the state in the Church's inner life. Some have come to an understanding with the state; others have heroically resisted and have paid, and continue to pay, a severe price for their fidelity to Rome.
However, in deference to the wisdom and personal experience of our correspondent, and to clarify any lingering doubts, I report below the substance of his message.
"Dear Father McNamara, I was disappointed to read your comments about the Chinese 'official' church. Though you did not state anything that is false, the 'impression' you left gives me cause to respond in charity and clarification.
"The fact is: the official Vatican position has always been that there is only one church in mainland China — but as John Paul II reiterated time and time again, it is a 'divided' church. The Chinese 'official' church is not a schismatic church. Its sacraments are valid but illicit.
"Secondly, as most Sinologists will tell you, about 97% of the current bishops have been 'legitimized' by the Vatican. To ensure the safety of the Chinese bishops, the Vatican never mentions who has been legitimized.
"However, in some cases, at the consecration of certain bishops, the legitimization letter of the Pope has been read either before or after the letter of appointment by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. For example, the recently consecrated bishop of Beijing, Li Shan Joseph, was approved by the CCPA and legitimized by the Vatican. In my recent visit to Beijing, I noted that the ... priest who took over after me for the pastoral care of the foreign Roman Catholics, had obtained permission from Bishop Li to confirm.
"Benedict XVI's letter was a 'watershed' moment in the history of the Chinese Catholic Church.... It recognizes that an underground church is not consistent with our history and encourages legitimized bishops 'when it is convenient' to admit their legitimization.
"I would ask you to please paint an accurate picture of the Chinese Catholics."
All I can say in conclusion is to invite all of our
readers to pray so that the unity and harmony that Pope
Benedict XVI desires for the Catholic Church in China be
achieved as soon as possible.