Pope pens prayer for Chinese Catholics

Vatican City - Pope Benedict XVI has composed a prayer for Catholics in China through which, among other things, they would seek inspiration to remain faithful to Rome. The Vatican on Friday issued the prayer - in eight languages including traditional and simplified Chinese - saying the pontiff had penned it for the "Day of Prayer for the Church in China" scheduled for May 24.

Benedict, in a landmark letter in June 2007, asked Chinese Catholics - those belonging to a state-sanctioned church and those loyal to him - to set aside the May 24 date, on which pilgrims traditionally visit the Our Lady of Sheshan shrine near Shanghai.

The new prayer refers to the shrine - which is dedicated to Jesus' mother, Mary, to whom the prayer is addressed - and also mentions the need to maintain strong links to the church in Rome, something which Beijing's Communist authorities have opposed.

"Help Catholics always to be credible witnesses to this love, ever clinging to the rock of Peter on which the Church is built. Mother of China and all Asia, pray for us, now and for ever, Amen," the pontiff's prayer ends.

Catholics believe their church to be founded by Jesus' disciple, Peter, whom they regard as the first pope.

Consecrated in 1924, the Sheshan shrine was attacked by Communist hardliners, who destroyed statues and other religious symbols during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Pilgrimages to the shrine resumed in 1979.

The Vatican does not have diplomatic relations with China, whose officially atheist government cut ties in the early 1950s.

Benedict was seen to break new ground in relations with Beijing when in June 2007 he sent a letter to Chinese Catholics expressing admiration for the Chinese people, but also the need for greater religious freedom in China.

The pontiff also reiterated his concern with Beijing's appointment of bishops and other officials to the state-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association without consulting the Vatican.

Relations appear to have improved since then, with the Vatican saying it had approved in September two state-appointed bishops.

In a further thaw, last week China's state Philharmonic Orchestra staged a concert for the pontiff in the Vatican.