THE title on his business card gives little away – Holy See Study Mission, Hong Kong.
For the past seven-and-a-half years, Monsignor Ante Jozic, an astute Croatian who previously worked at the Holy See nunciature in Moscow, has held one of the Catholic Church’s most delicate and intriguing diplomatic positions anywhere in the world.
Working under the innocuous “study mission” title, Msgr Jozic acts as a link between the Holy See and dioceses across the vastness of China’s 33 provinces.
He understands the nature of the mission well, having been raised and spent his seminary years behind Eastern Europe’s iron curtain.
“Certainly the Church in China, and in some provinces is flourishing and is very strong,” Msgr Jozic said.
Diplomatic relations between China and the Holy See were broken off more than six decades ago, and since then relations have only existed through informal channels.
After the Holy See representatives were expelled from China, China’s Communist Party formed the “Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association” in 1957 to run the Catholic and other churches.
Even today the CCPA runs the Catholic Church in China as a parallel entity.
It does not recognise the pope’s supreme authority, and it appoints its own bishops.
There are about 110 bishops in China, of which seven are “illicit” bishops, according to Msgr Jozic.
Catholics who refuse this arrangement have gone underground, at the risk of persecution and imprisonment.
Recently The Catholic Leader reached Msgr Jozic for a comment and he agreed to discuss the Church in China and some of his work – the shadowy world of keeping relations with China alive, as Rome and Beijing continue informal talks about re-opening official ties.
“The Church in China is living in semi-freedom,” Msgr Jozic said.
“Concerns for security mean that China doesn’t allow any space to be uncontrolled.
“The government always wants to know about all Church activities.”
Msgr Jozic described the Church as “growing”, with a new generation of Chinese drawn to the faith and priests being ordained.
For many years without Church records, including baptismal certificates, it is difficult to determine the number of Catholics in China today, however, Msgr Jozic conservatively estimates between 6.5 and 8.5 million faithful.
“Certainly there are more faithful, especially in those areas where the Church has operated underground,” he said.
Msgr Jozic described regions of China where churches, seminaries and Church-run orphanages are being built, some with support and financial backing from the Communist authorities.
“The government wants to show that religion is free … and not against faith,” Msgr Jozic said.
However, in many places the Church remains underground and persecuted, and where parishioners are forced to hide priests and worship secretly in homes.
Msgr Jozic said one of the Chinese Government’s main concerns was to maintain “national integrity and security”.
He recalled the banning of up to 25 priests in 2011, a situation that he said had now been resolved and the priests were allowed to enter China.
“There are a lot of regulations, which can be interpreted differently and can change day to day,” Msgr Jozic said.
“This can apply to the selection and ordination of new bishops.”
Beijing’s recent crackdown on Christianity has been particularly stark in the wealthy city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, also known as “China’s Jerusalem” for its large Christian population.
There, authorities have removed or destroyed Christian crosses and churches, including officially sanctioned ones.
The forcible removal of Wenzchou’s Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin, not a member of the CCPA and considered a strong part of the underground church, represents the latest anti-Catholic action.
Bishop Shao was summonsed from his diocese by the government’s religious affairs bureau on May 18.
Recently the Holy See issued a statement expressing “grave concern” for his safety.
“The Catholic community of the diocese and his family and friends remain with no news of the bishop’s whereabouts or of the reason for his removal,” the statement said.
It is the fourth time Bishop Shao has been taken away from his diocese or detained since the Holy See confirmed his position late last year.
While the government’s religious affairs bureau rails against Bishop Shao, Msgr Jozic said the underground Church remained strong, often because of its unity and support by lay leadership in the parishes.
“Unfortunately, the priests who are not recognised by Chinese civil authorities, are meeting in the houses and some of them have to move from province to province,” he said.
“We have still some of the bishops who are hiding.”
Msgr Jozic said that in the diocese where CCPA bishops operated, parishioners did not accept the bishops.
“Therefore, the illicit bishops would like to be reconciled with the pope, and be in communion with the him, because they know being reconciled with the universal Church people will accept them,” he said.
“It means that even though the Church is divided, both communities would like to be also united with the pope.”
Msgr Jozic said a new dialogue with Chinese authorities had restarted in 2013.
A “joint working group” formed in 2014 – consists of a few members appointed from Beijing and from the Holy See, meeting several times a year.
The group discusses the results of unofficial negotiations over the past few decades.
“China has made remarkable progress in technology and economy … but it has not made progress on religion and a law for religion,” Msgr Jozic said.
“This has been a long discussion since the 1980s.”
He said what was important for the future was an agreement that would allow Chinese faithful to confess freely their faith according to the Church doctrine and to be in communion with the Successor of Peter who was a true guarantee of Church unity.
“It seems that Chinese civil authorities are willing to turn a new page in relation with the Vatican but, at the same time, to continue to keep the same religious policy based on their communist ideology,” Msgr Jozic said.
“As China has done a lot of progress in other sectors of human life, it seems that human rights and religious freedom are still closed for a modernisation.
“For some experts, China prefers to return back in ’60s and ’70s.
“Certainly, if Chinese government will continue to insist on the same restrictive religious policy from the 20th century, the Catholic Church will remain divided because Chinese people cannot accept it and each possible agreement with the Vatican, even if reached, will not function.”
Msgr Jozic said he hoped China would be open to modernise and not fear religious communities.
“I hope China will co-operate more with them and fully recognise their credo and their doctrines,” he said.
“As for the Catholic Church, I hope China will recognise the pope’s authority for all Catholic faithful just as all other countries recognise his authority.
“In that case, both the government and the Church will prosper and there will be less tensions but rather more co-operation for the benefit of all Chinese citizens.
“The Church with hits spiritual and charitable mission will contribute much more to Chinese society.”
As a sign of optimism, Msgr Jozic said for the past five years there had been no illicit episcopal ordinations in China.
“I really hope that the civil authorities will avoid them in future and, especially, stop with ideological imprisonment of bishops and priests,” he said.
“Chinese faithful are very strong in faith and will not accept any immoral or corrupted behaviour in the Church even if they are forced by the civil authorities.”