Pope sends letter to China from the air

At Beijing’s oldest Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday, Mary Zhang eagerly awaited the arrival of Pope Francis.

“I’m very excited. It’s the first time the pope has flown over China,” she said. “I really hope he can give a Mass in person in China one day. It’s a sign of a better relationship between the Vatican and Beijing, as flying over China was not allowed before.”

The pontiff, who later landed in Seoul on Thursday for a visit to South Korea, sent a telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping as the plane flew over northeastern China, as Francis does with any country he flies over, in accordance with Vatican tradition.

The telegram, sent early Thursday, stated that, “Upon entering Chinese airspace, I extend best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.”

Even a routine telegram message carries historic significance, given the two sides’ often-fraught relationship since diplomatic ties were cut in 1951 after Mao’s ascent to power two years earlier. The flight itself marks a minor breakthrough, as China earlier refused to allow St. John Paul II’s plane to cross its airspace en route to Seoul back in 1989.

“This is a sign of detente, for sure,” Bernardo Cervellera told Reuters. “But the real miracle would be if Xi Jinping responds with his own telegram, and what he says.”

In Hong Kong, which enjoys greater religious and other freedoms than the rest of the country, Catholicism researcher Anthony Lam welcomed the flight plan as a sign China had “learned a lesson” from snubbing John Paul II, but he also cautioned against “too much expectation” from the flyover.

“It’s just a polite gesture. Beijing and the Vatican can be very friendly, and both sides won’t cause extra trouble to their counterparts,” he said.

Key obstacles to better ties include the Vatican’s relations with Taiwan, which Beijing still views as a renegade province, and China’s refusal to recognize the authority of the Holy See to appoint their own bishops. In China, bishops must pledge their support for the Communist Party in public.

Of the country’s 12 million Catholics, about half worship at “underground” churches not controlled by the authorities, with the rest at state-approved venues led by bishops appointed by the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which actually rejects Vatican authority and is not technically considered a part of the church.

To reinforce the Communist Party’s control of religion, China plans to create its own “Chinese Christian theology.” Based on China’s culture and conditions, the state theology would better guide the practice of Christianity in China, top religious affairs official Wang Zuoan said last week regarding the party’s announcement.