An official who works in the Vatican office overseeing mission territories in Asia, Africa, and throughout the developing world says the Church must be “realistic” in its engagement with authoritarian governments, such as in China and Vietnam.
Monsignor Camillus Johnpillai, who serves as office manager for the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization, told journalists Tuesday that on the political level, the path the Vatican has chosen with China is among “the options we have that we can do. We can’t create another option that doesn’t exist.”
“So, we need to be more realistic in the way we engage with politicians, not only with China, but there are also other countries, like Vietnam, for example. Every country has its uniqueness, its characteristics,” he said.
Regardless of what country the Vatican is engaging with, the first step in sending someone new or creating new dioceses etcetera is that “we must always ask for the nulla osta of the government,” Johnpillai said.
“Unfortunately, we are very limited in negotiating all this, but still, the work goes forward,” he said. “Not with speed, but with a very limited progress.”
Johnpillai spoke at the presentation of the Euntes in mundum universum conference, which is taking place Nov. 16-18 at Rome’s Pontifical Urban University to mark the 400th anniversary of the Vatican office for evangelization, Propaganda Fide.
Established in 1622, the office was charged with re-evangelizing portions of the west where the faith was weakening and with cementing the Catholic Church’s reach in the developing world, including many places in Africa, Asia, and portions of Latin America.
Renamed as the Pontifical Council for the Evangelization of Peoples by Pope Paul VI following the Second Vatican Council, the department was recently revamped by Pope Francis and is now referred to as the Dicastery for Evangelization and is overseen by the pope himself.
The department’s competence includes oversight of church affairs in China, including the appointment of bishops in the spirit of the Vatican’s provisional agreement with the Chinese government on episcopal nominations, the terms of which have never been made public.
Struck in 2018, the two-year agreement is believed to allow the pope to make the final selection from a set of candidates proposed by Chinese officials, which is similar to the Holy See’s agreement with Vietnam on bishop appointments.
The deal, which has been vocally opposed by critics who call it a “sellout” of Chinese Catholics who have faced persecution for their loyalty to Rome, was recently renewed for the second time, meaning it will remain in force for another two years, despite widespread controversy.
Asked what contribution his department has made regarding episcopal appointments in China, Johnpillai said that “When these territories are involved, which fall under Propoganda Fidei, that is, Evangelization, for what concerns China, it’s another matter.”
Whereas appointments in other countries are more routine, China is unique, he said, noting that the Dicastery for Evangelization does not use the word “diocese” to describe ecclesial jurisdictions in China, but rather, “apostolic prefectures.”
Johnpillai said members of the Dicastery for Evangelization meet with members of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State on a weekly basis to evaluate “how to proceed, because here we are in a political situation that is very different than other dioceses.”
“The Secretariat of State is well informed on the situation,” he said, saying “every decision, above all the appointment, the nomination, it is always in collaboration with the section that is responsible for China within the Secretariat of State.”
“After the agreement, the nominations are going forward,” he said, referring to the Vatican-China deal.
Noting that some have criticized the Vatican for not making the terms of the agreement public, referring to it as a “secret” deal, Johnpillai said ‘secret’ is “a word that requires a certain interpretation, but the Chinese government follows everything that we do. Nothing is secret in the end.”
Matters involving local churches in China, he said, are managed largely by the Vatican’s representative in Hong Kong, where the Church has a “study mission center.”
“These people who have this center are capable of managing things in a clearer way, because they are closer, also geographically, to the church, so there are many different ways of communicating with every small diocese, every particular church,” he said.
Johnpillai said social media has also been a helpful source of updated information, saying, “Even if we are far away, thanks to social media networks we can have various information concerning the life of the particular churches in China.”
He made no mention of the trial against Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, who is the former bishop of Hong Kong and who is on trial for subversion under the territory’s national security law.