ROME — Pope Francis took advantage Sunday of his first public blessing since the coronavirus outbreak to give a shout-out to the “great country” of China.
“Let us join spiritually with the Catholic faithful in China, who today celebrate, with particular devotion, the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, help of Christians and Patron of China, revered in the Sheshan shrine in Shanghai,” the pope told pilgrims gathered in Saint Peter’s Square for his Regina Caeli message and apostolic blessing.
Sunday marked the reopening of Saint Peter’s Square after a 67-day national lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“We entrust the pastors and faithful of the Catholic Church in that great country to the leadership and protection of our Heavenly Mother, so that they may be strong in faith and steadfast in fraternal union, joyful witnesses and promoters of charity and hope,” Francis said.
China has emerged as a central concern of the pope, and the Vatican has spared no effort in its attempt to woo Beijing into full diplomatic relations, according to veteran Vatican journalist John L. Allen, Jr..
The Vatican is “covetous of a relationship with China, and often apparently willing to stifle objections and give away a great deal” in order to make headway, Allen wrote last Sunday.
In short, “the Vatican is moving full-steam ahead in its courtship of Beijing, with the ultimate prize remaining full diplomatic relations, a secure legal standing for the church, and partnerships on the global stage,” Allen said.
Pope Francis has indeed insisted that China’s communist government protects religious freedom and that “churches are full.” Meanwhile, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Argentinian Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, has declared that the China has created the best model for living out Catholic social teaching today.
“Dear Catholic brothers and sisters in China, I would like to assure you that the universal Church, of which you are an integral part, shares your hopes and supports you in trials,” the pope said Sunday. “It accompanies you with prayer for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, so that in you may shine the light and beauty of the Gospel, God’s power for the salvation of anyone who believes.”
Last November, during an in-flight press conference during his return flight from Asia, the pope reiterated his desire to visit China, while dodging questions about the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.
“I would like to go to Beijing,” Francis said. “I love China.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has been harshly critical of the communist China’s egregious violations of religious liberty in the country, and yet in his many appeals against human rights abuses around the world, the pope has been strangely silent on the matter.