Pope Francis has called on Catholics worldwide to join in prayer with their fellow Catholics in China on May 24, to ask God to give them the grace "to announce with humility and joy" Jesus Christ, to be faithful" to his Church and to the Pope, and to live their lives in service to their country in a way that is coherent with their Christian faith.
Speaking for the first time publicly on the Church in China on May 22, at the end of the public audience in St Peter's Square attended by some 100,000 people, Pope Francis chose his words carefully and simply called for prayer for the more than 12 million Catholics in China, who are still divided in two communities as a result of policies pursued by the Chinese Government.
He began by recalling that next Friday, May 24, is "a day dedicated to the liturgical memory of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Help of Christians, who is venerated with great devotion at the sanctuary of Sheshan in Shanghai", and then said:
"I invite all the Catholics of the world to join in prayer with their brothers and sisters who are in China to implore from God the grace to announce with humility and joy Christ who died and is risen, to be faithful to his Church and to the Successor of Peter, and to live their daily lives in service to their country and to their fellow citizens in a way that is coherent with the faith they profess.
"Making our own some words of a prayer to Our Lady at Shesan", he said, "together with you I would like to invoke Mary in this way:
"Our Lady of Sheshan, sustain all those in China, who, amid their daily trials, continue to believe, to hope, to love, so that they may never be afraid to speak of Jesus to the world, and of the world to Jesus."
"Mary, Virgin most faithful, support Chinese Catholics, render their commitments, which are not easy, more and more precious in the eyes of the Lord, and nurture the affection and the participation of the Church in China in the journey of the Universal Church".
His predecessor, Benedict XVI, in his historic 2007 Letter to Catholics in China, decreed that May 24 be kept worldwide as "a day of prayer for the Church in China". He also composed a prayer for the occasion and Pope Francis used part of that prayer in his prayer today.
The Jesuit Pope is well aware of the history of the Catholic Church in China and the delicate situation it is in today. He is keen to do whatever he can to help it reach a situation of normality such as is enjoyed by the Church in most other countries of the world.
Indeed he is constantly reminded of the Church in China by the small bronze statue of Our Lady of Sheshan that is standing in his room in the Vatican guesthouse of Santa Marta where he now lives. It was given to him in the Sistine Chapel immediately after his election as pope on March 13, by Hong Kong's Cardinal John Tong.
On that occasion, the cardinal told him, "The Catholics in China love you and will pray for you. Also, we ask for your care for all Chinese Catholics, and please pray for us!" Pope Francis responded by recalling that "Chinese Catholics have given many testimonies to the Universal Church" and, he revealed, "I never forget to pray for Chinese Catholics". Some days later, he confided to the cardinal, "The Church in China is in my heart".