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For decades, China's Catholics, estimated at over 12 million, have been bitterly divided. Some worship in official government-sanctioned churches, others in underground churches loyal to the Vatican. But three years ago, Pope Benedict sent a letter to Chinese Catholics, the first from a pope in more than half a century. The point of the letter: to urge reconciliation.

In the second part of our series on faith in China, NPR's Louisa Lim reports on how the country's Catholics are struggling to follow the pontiff's instructions.

(Soundbite of singing and conversations)

LOUISA LIM: It's early morning and Catholic pilgrims are kneeling here on the ground at the pilgrimage shrine to the Virgin Mary in Sheshan, on the outskirts of Shanghai. Today is a special day. It's the day designated by the Pope as the International Day of Prayer for China. And it's a measure of what it means to be a Catholic in China that in the past this pilgrimage spot has been the subject of heightened, intense security by police and security forces, sometimes stopping pilgrims from entering.

This year, however, from what I've seen so far, the situation is quite different.

(Soundbite of singing and church bells)

LIM: The official procession sets off up the hill to the basilica. White-robed priests carry a statue of the Virgin Mary. Nuns shower it with flower petals.

The clergy in this procession belong to China's official Catholic Church, sometimes known as the Open Church. It cut ties with the Vatican in 1951 and has ordained its own bishops, some without the approval of the Pope.

(Soundbite of singing)

LIM: Throughout the festivities, some believers refuse to enter the government-sanctioned church on the hill. They hold their own services outdoors at the shrine. This is whats called the Underground Church, though this year they are permitted to worship here openly, signaling a thaw. They refuse to take Communion from Beijing's officially appointed bishops, and they follow bishops chosen by the Vatican.

In some parts of China, these communities are moving closer. In Tianjin, just 50 miles from Beijing, priest Zhang Liang says the papal letter three years ago was a turning point.

Father ZHANG LIANG: (Through Translator) In the past, Tianjin diocese was divided into above-ground and underground Catholics. The two factions argued, and it was awkward when they met. But Pope Benedict XVI issued a papal letter, and now we in Tianjin have reconciled with each other.

(Soundbite of Mass)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

IN UNISON: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: During Mass, priests publicly name Stephen Li Side as their bishop. He's the senior Vatican-appointed bishop unrecognized by Beijing. He himself has urged his flock to worship in the state-sanctioned church as an act of reconciliation.

Father Zhang believes Chinese Catholics should take responsibility for healing the divisions themselves instead of blaming the government.

Father ZHANG: (Through Translator) Why do you blame the government? It's like blaming the sun for not shining on you. If you take one step forward, there's the sunshine. It's like saying: Will the government let me open this door or not? The government doesn't care whether you open the door. You just think they care. Everyone is so busy prejudging, they don't dare do anything.

(Soundbite of cars)

LIM: Just 25 miles away from Tianjin's splendid cathedral is a makeshift concrete church alongside a busy highway. This is where another underground bishop, Melchior Shi Hongzhen, spends his day. This cheerful 83-year-old is also recognized by the Vatican, as a coadjutor bishop, similar to an auxiliary bishop.

He says he supports the steps towards reconciliation but he will not join the official Catholic Patriotic Association, a quasi-governmental organization that controls the Catholic Church in China.

Bishop MELCHIOR SHI HONGZHEN: (Through Translator) The Patriotic Association is an organization of the country, like the Communist Party. You are free to join or not. I didn't. What I've been doing doesn't harm the country in any way. I just give Mass, baptism and the last rites. That's all.

LIM: Despite recent moves towards reconciliation, his personal situation hasn't changed. He's under a kind of house arrest, effectively a prisoner in his compound. Believers can come and worship with him but Catholic clergy reportedly cannot.

China fears the influence of the Vatican, and this frail old man is evidently viewed as a threat. He's not keen to talk about the politics of the Church in China, but it's notable that he praises Thomas More, the 16th-century Catholic martyr.

Bishop HONGZHEN: (Through Translator) Do you know why Thomas More was sentenced to death? Because of his Catholic faith. How amazing to have such love for Catholicism.

(Soundbite of singing)

LIM: But even before the papal letter, things had been changing in China. Over the years, one by one, most of Beijing's patriotic bishops have secretly contacted the Vatican and received Rome's approval.

That's done through emissaries like the Father Michel Marcil. Now in charge of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau, he's traveled to China more than 30 times since the early '80s.

Father MICHEL MARCIL (Executive Director, U.S. Catholic China Bureau): Since we were meeting priests and meeting bishops who had been consecrated bishop without the permission of Rome, you know, and things like that, see they were telling us this kind of condemnation by Rome was the greatest pain they had in all of that. It's really painful. Some of them would say, well, I'd like to write to the Pope, would you give a letter? So this is what a lot of us were doing. So were kind of messengers.

(Soundbite of Mass)

LIM: Now, 90 percent of Beijing's open bishops have been recognized by Rome. And since the papal letter, all the candidates picked by China to become new bishops have also been acceptable to Rome. It's significant, too, that despite the lack of any official ties, Pope Benedict's letter was sent first to the Chinese government before being issued to the faithful.

Sister Janet Carroll is a Maryknoll nun who's worked with Chinese Catholics for many years.

Sister JANET CARROLL (Maryknoll Order): There was a very careful consideration on the part of the Vatican, the Holy See, to make the letter available to the authorities in China. And that really was a gesture on the part, I believe, of the Holy See to relate to the Chinese government and to let them know that it was nothing, that they weren't trying to do any sort of rousing up of the faithful over against their own country.

LIM: All agree that the Vatican and China are inching closer. Even the man some see as the Vatican's nemesis, Anthony Liu Bainian, has been called China's pope. A former seminarian, he's in charge of China's Catholic Patriotic Association. It's an organization which Pope Benedict described as incompatible with Catholic doctrine in his papal letter.

But Anthony Liu Bainian sees his post in lofty terms, saying he believes he was chosen by God.

Mr. ANTHONY LIU BAINIAN (Vice Chairman, Catholic Patriotic Association): (Through Translator) The Lord needed a bridge between the church in China and those holding political power. And I'm a tool sent by the Lord to be that bridge.

LIM: He blames the Vatican for splitting China's church. China's position is that the Vatican must cut its diplomatic ties with Taiwan and not interfere with China's internal affairs, including its religious decisions. His view: the ball is in the Vatican's court.

Mr. BAINIAN: (Through Translator) China is getting stronger and richer, and the Vatican can't get away from politics. The Vatican is isolated over China's diplomatic recognition. The problem of ordination of bishops doesn't stem from the Chinese church. If there are no diplomatic ties and we want to choose bishops, how could we report back to the Vatican? If you want to solve the problem, you should have already established diplomatic ties.

(Soundbite of singing)

LIM: Politics aside, reconciliation is easier said than done. Back in Tianjin, one believer criticized the moves as a cheat. Theres confusion too, as to what the Pope's letter actually said, with various interpretations circulating.

In a different part of China, one underground nun, who didn't want to give her name, told me her doubts.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Through translator) I'm not sure whether the Pope understands the situation of underground church people like us. If we all suddenly came out into the open, then it would be out of control. It would cause chaos for the church. If you don't know what reconciliation means, then it's better not to reconcile.

(Soundbite of chanting)

LIM: As we talk, an underground service is being held inside a spartan bedroom next door. There's a danger the Pope's plea for reconciliation could end up splintering the church further, and even diplomatic ties with the Vatican wouldn't solve the decades of animosity on the ground. Yet, the lines between underground and open church are blurring and China's divided Catholics are groping towards reconciliation, even if that process is slow and painful.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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