On 1 October, Pope John Paul II canonised 120 Chinese martyrs at an impressive ceremony in St Peter's, Rome. Large numbers of Chinese pilgrims attended the ceremony, many from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao and other parts of the world.
This followed an earlier heated reaction from the Communist Chinese Government that this date coincided with the anniversary of the founding of the Communist state in China in 1949 and was therefore a calculated 'slap in the face'.
The Pope concelebrated the canonisation Mass with Cardinal Shan Kuo-hsi of Kaohsiung (Taiwan), Archbishop Joseph Ti-Kang of Taipei and Bishop John Ton Hon, an auxiliary bishop of the Hong Kong Diocese.
Of the 120 martyrs, who are identified as "Augustin Tchao and companions," 87 are native Chinese - the first ever to be canonised - while the remaining 33 are missionaries who served in China. All of them lived and died around the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Human rights record
The Chinese Communist Government, however, may soon have to choose between its continuing persecution of non-officially approved religious groups and its deep desire to host the 2008 Olympic Games. Its present abysmal human rights record - including continuing religious oppression, forced abortions and the oppression of Tibet - remain major obstacles to China's acceptance.
Beijing currently requires Christians to worship only in state- controlled associations, including the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which eschews any connections with the Vatican or the Pope. Many Catholics prefer to worship in illegal, "underground" churches following only bishops appointed by the Pope.
In September, police in China arrested Bishop Tommaso Zeng Jingmu of the underground Catholic Church - who has spent 32 of his 80 years in prison - along with his auxiliary, Bishop Deng Hui, and a priest. On 26 August, another Chinese bishop faithful to the Pope, Bishop Jiang Ming Yuan, was also arrested. It was all part of the Chinese Government's on-going campaign to eliminate the underground Church.
The hostile Chinese response to the canonisations may have caused Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who was in Beijing at the time for a religion conference, to cut short his visit. The cardinal's visit was seen as a major advance in Vatican-China relations, but the Chinese crackdown on Catholics has nevertheless continued. The US-based Cardinal Kung Foundation had reported on several troubling incidents of arrests and beatings of bishops, priests, and laypeople, and called on Cardinal Etchegaray to protest about the Chinese actions.
While Christianity's long history in China has been marked by periods of impressive growth, it has also had to endure savage per- secutions.
The faith first appeared there, under the guise of Nestorianism, in 635. That heresy was abolished by decree in 845. The first Catholic mission in Beijing was founded by Italian Franciscan, Giovanni de Montecorvino, in 1234, who baptised thousands and founded three churches. Other Franciscan missionaries, including bishops, arrived in 1300. By then, Catholics numbered about 30,000. In 1549 Ignatius Loyola sent Francis Xavier to China and by 1600, 25 Jesuit missionaries were in China, along with 22 Franciscans, two Augustinians and a Dominican.
Missionaries in China were a select group. In addition to their spirit of faith and love, they were chosen for their cultural talents and scientific know-how, particularly in astronomy and mathematics. Thanks to the missionaries, the Chinese calendar was corrected. The missionaries' cultural and scientific qualifications opened many doors to them, and the quality of their religious life led many upper class people to convert.
Over the centuries, the fortunes of Chinese Christians fluctuated, with savage persecutions - most recently during the Boxer Rebellion in the early 20th century and following the Communist takeover in 1949 - followed by periods of relative calm.
Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the chief spokesman for the Holy See, pointed out that the Chinese protest was based in part on inaccurate information. Beijing had said that the government of Taiwan was behind the drive to canonise the Chinese martyrs. But Navarro-Valls noted that the causes for the canonisation of these martyrs had been introduced long ago - in some cases, as early as 1893, and in most cases before the Communist Government took control of mainland China.
National holiday clash
The drive toward canonisation, he said, had been backed by Chinese bishops before the Communist takeover. He also rejected Beijing's argument that the European missionaries among the martyrs were "anti- Chinese," when in fact all of them had "a deep love for China."
Finally, Navarro-Valls denied the date of the canonisation ceremonies was chosen to clash with a Chinese national holiday - that coincidence had not even been noticed when the date was set. 1 October was in fact the feast of St Thérèse of Lisieux, patron of missionary work, who wrote about her prayer for the Chinese missions.
Despite Beijing's opposition, Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-hsi was delighted, declaring that "the event is a great honor for the Chinese people and a great encouragement for the Church in China."
Catholics of both the state-controlled and unofficial churches had keenly anticipated the canonisations and several bishops of the underground Church asked for the text of the Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II so they could celebrate Masses at the same time.