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Divided Chinese Catholic Church Looks for Reconciliation

Officials of the Catholic Church in China say their church is growing, despite internal tensions that have split the church into rival factions. Some Catholics accept the role of the Chinese government in religious affairs, while others - members of the so-called underground church - reject it. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Beijing, there are efforts under way to bring the sides together.

There are five services, or masses, each Sunday at Beijing's historic South Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. It is one of 20 official Catholic churches in the city.

Father Matthew Zhen Xuebin, secretary-general of the Catholic Church of the Beijing diocese, spoke there with reporters about the church's challenges.

He says that as China grows richer, fewer young men are choosing to enter the priesthood. He says there are 55 priests in the Beijing diocese serving from 60,000 to 100,000 Catholics. Some priests are elderly and others are studying abroad. The diocese has just 20 seminarians preparing for the priesthood.

Yet this church, founded by Jesuit missionaries 400 years ago, is the center of a thriving Catholic community.

Other Catholics meet in secret. After the communist revolution, ties with the Vatican in Rome were forcibly broken, and the church was placed under a Chinese Patriotic Association.

This led to a divided church, with some priests, bishops and laity refusing to take part in official worship. Underground worshippers are subject to harassment or arrest.

There are five million members of the official Catholic Church. The Vatican estimates that as many or more Catholics worship secretly.

But there have been informal contacts between Beijing and Rome in recent years, and some leaders of the official church have reconciled with the Vatican. In a 2007 letter, Pope Benedict urged healing among divided Chinese Catholics, and asked the government to resume dialogue and respect religious freedom.

Beijing diocesan official Father Zhen says the Chinese government and Vatican have their differences. He will not talk about these issues, but says China's Catholics are faithful to the Roman Catholic tradition.

"The Catholic Church, the priests, the religious [members of religious orders] and the faithful [ordinary Catholics] are very faithful to the Roman Catholic Church and are very faithful to the pope," said Father Zhen. "In fact, in China I would say the Chinese Catholic Church is the most faithful to the church and to the pope, Benedict."

In an interview Wednesday with Italian television, Beijing Catholic Bishop Joseph Li Shan said relations with the Vatican are improving and that he would welcome a papal visit to China. A Vatican official called the invitation encouraging, but premature.

Chinese churches are prevented from active outreach, but the Beijing diocese receives 1,500 converts every year.

Two sisters, Li Xiaojing and Li Yajing, are university students and practicing Catholics. Xiaojing is 21 years old and studies communications technology. She says she comes to mass often at Beijing South Cathedral, as she did one recent morning.

"First, because today, it is Sunday," said Xiaojing. "This is the day of our God. So I come here. I like the atmosphere. It is very lovely."

Li Yajing, 22, studies electrical engineering, and finds solace in these Sunday services.

"As a student, I have a lot of stress and I feel very depressed sometimes," said Yajing. "But when I come to the church, I feel very happy."

Pope Benedict said in his 2007 letter that China has only one Catholic Church, and he urged an end to tensions, divisions and recriminations.

Religious activities are still tightly controlled in China, and Internet Web sites of groups that criticize China's policies on religion remain blocked.

But Catholics at this Beijing cathedral see conditions improving and say they are hopeful that their faith, with its long history, has a place in China's future.