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Popes arrival in Seoul inspires hope in China

The Catholic Church in China is split into two-a state sanctioned Church known as the Patriotic Association that answers to the Communist Party, and underground Churches where worshipers are loyal to the Pope.
The Catholic Church in China is split into two-a state sanctioned Church known as the Patriotic Association that answers to the Communist Party, and underground Churches where worshipers are loyal to the Pope.Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Pope Francis arrived in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, according to News.Va, the official Vatican news agency. This is the first papal visit to the country in 25 years. The significance of this visit is a hint to Catholicism's increasingly shifting demographics worldwide. The Pope's visit is part of an opening to Asia, his presence recognition by the Vatican that the Church in Asia is growing.

While the Pope was flying over China, Mary Zhang, 54, eagerly awaited the flyover in Beijing’s oldest Roman Catholic Church, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Zhang, a volunteer who helps clean the church, expressed her hope Pope Francis would one day be able to give a Mass in person in China. This was the first time the Pope has flown over China, a sign of a better relationship between the Vatican and Beijing.

In accordance with Vatican protocol, the Pontiff sent a telegram of greetings to Chinese President Xi Jinping as his plane flew over China. In the telegram Pope Francis said, “Upon entering Chinese Air Space I extend best wishes your Excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.”

Diplomatic ties were cut between China and the Vatican after Mao’s ascent to power. No Pope has visited the communist nation since Chairman Mao Zedong crushed religion out of the country. Pope Francis’ flight does appear to be a breakthrough, since China refused to allow St. John Paul II’s plane to cross its airspace on a trip to Seoul in 1989.

A key obstacle to better ties between the nations is China’s refusal to recognize the authority of the Vatican to appoint Bishops. In China any Bishop who remains loyal to the Vatican risks jail and torture. Bishops are required to publicly pledge their belief in the Communist Party. To reinforce the Communist Party’s atheist mind-set, the government desires to control religion and reduce the foreign influence on Chinese citizens. China announced plans to create its own “Chinese Christian theology,” which will be based on Chinese culture. According to Wang Zuoan, top religious affairs official in China, this home-grown state theology would be a better guide to the practice of Christianity in China.

The growth of Christianity in China has been quickening, their numbers have more than tripled since the estimated 10 million in 1996. It is believed about half of Chinese Christians worship at “underground” churches, which are churches are not controlled by the government authorities. The other half of Chinese Christians worship at state-approved venues, which are led by Bishops appointed by the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. This organization rejects Vatican authority over Chinese Churches.