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The labor of Benedict

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For the sake of the church worldwide, which looks to the millions of Chinese Catholics as a source of hope, we pray that they will answer his call.

If Pope Benedict XVI's letter to China is like any of the 12 Labors of Hercules, it's most like the fifth one, the cleaning of King Augeas' stables.

It was perhaps the most difficult challenge Hercules faced. The stables had never been cleaned even though they held an enormous number of cattle that had added for years to a mythically gigantic mess. Realizing he could never do the job in the conventional way, Hercules diverted a river that swept through channels he dug into the stables.

Pope Benedict has a similar challenge - and much the same answer. What happened to the church in most communist countries was bad enough. In places like Albania, the government relentlessly persecuted church leaders. In places such as Poland, they kept the hierarchy in a decades-long chokehold.

In China it was worse. The Catholic Church was first persecuted, then split. One group of Catholics was co-opted by the government in its Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Another was driven underground.

Now, a few decades later, many in the Patriotic Association have pledged allegiance to Rome - and those who stayed true in the underground church are modern-day Christian heroes, martyrs in death or bloodless martyrs who have lived out a monumental sacrifice.

The mess that needs to be sorted out has many components. Chief among them are:

- Ecclesial disputes. Most Patriotic bishops are legitimate. A few aren't. Of those who are, some have made capitulations to the state that, while not ideal, are not illegitimate. Others capitulations were inappropriate.

- Two realities. On the one hand, there are many Catholics who are, by circumstance and history, part of the Patriotic church, but whose hearts are with Rome. On the other is a whole group of Catholics whose heroic fidelity to Rome make them like a church of Thomas Mores. How to properly honor the faith of the first group without slighting the witness of the second?

Pope Benedict has to define exactly where and when a violation of Petrine authority crossed the line and where it was simply an unfortunate capitulation in extreme circumstances. He has to honor the faith of two groups of Catholics who have arrived at the year 2007 from two different histories.

Pope Benedict's solution is to do what Hercules did: Carefully divert a river. He has to know where the church can yield and where it must stand firm. And he has to do it in such a way that the whole point of the exercise - the flock - is preserved intact.

Then he has to marshal the only force strong enough to clean the mess: the river of divine love. As the pope put it to Chinese Catholics, Christ's love "enables human beings to enter into a new dimension, where mercy and love shown even to enemies can bear witness to the victory of the cross over all weakness and human wretchedness."

The bottom-line function of the church is to deliver the sacraments to souls. Any other goal pales to insignificance if it contravenes that one.

The church in China is entering a new era, one that can only begin with the painful choice Christians have faced after every wave of martyrdom in history. It can step forward only by leaving the painful past behind. And it can do that only through heroic love and mercy - toward both persecutors and those who buckled under pressure.

The effort will be worth it.

A missionary priest tells the story of asking a Chinese Catholic if he wishes his church were more like America's.

"No, I wish America's was more like ours," he said. "In the West, Catholics have grown complacent - here, we know the value of the faith."

He's right.

A united Catholic Church in China won't just change the history of the church - it will change the history of the world. The church can feed the spiritual hunger of the East, and start a revolution of love in one of the world's largest and most powerful nations. But only if the Catholics of China follow Pope Benedict XVI with courage and generosity.

We can pray to the martyrs of China's underground church for the grace to make that so. After all, they know what it takes to follow the pope, no matter how hard it gets.

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