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from issue no. 12 - 2009

The case of Baoding and the Pope’s letter


The true story of Bishop Francis An Shuxin: imprisoned for ten years by the Communists, insulted by Catholic agencies, tried by his brothers in the faith and treated with some embarrassment even by the Vatican. A symbolic story that reveals widespread resistance to the pastoral suggestions addressed by Benedict XVI to all Chinese Catholics in the Letter of June 2007


by Gianni Valente


Faithful coming out of Mass from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Nantang) in Beijing <BR>[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Faithful coming out of Mass from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Nantang) in Beijing
[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Baoding is not difficult to reach, by road or rail. It is less than 150 kilometers south of Beijing. The polluting industries were dismantled some time ago there, and they started making wind turbines and whatever was needed to derive energy from sun, wind and biomass. That is why reports in government newspapers extolled it as the capital of renewable energy, the Chinese model on the road to sustainable development. But for those who know even a little of the recent history of Catholics in China, Baoding is a place like no others. And for quite different reasons.
The name of the city in Hebei province, where currently less than one million people live, comes up often in the chronicles of Chinese Catholicism in recent decades as the epicenter of sensitive and controversial issues. It was in Baoding that in 1981 Bishop Joseph Fan Xueyan began to ordain bishops in clandestine fashion, outside the interference and control of the “patriotic” bodies imposed on the Church by the religious policies of the regime. An initiative approved after the fact by Pope John Paul II, and fraught with consequences. From there developed like lightning the network of “clandestine” bishops, those not recognized as such by the government, who set themselves at the head of that part of the Catholic Chinese – priests, religious, communities – which was unwilling to subject their ecclesial life to the control of the Party.
Thirty years later, Baoding again became the center of a controversy reminiscent in some ways of the way chosen at the time by Joseph Fan. Everything revolves around the case of a clandestine bishop who decided to come out into the open and to exercise his pastoral mandate by accepting procedures imposed by the civil authorities. His decision has triggered a storm of poisonous controversy that for months has been rending the Catholic communities of the region, and even involving the Vatican. The story is confused, and so far some partial and tendentious reconstructions put on the net by agencies and self-styled experts have encouraged misleading interpretations. But two documents, still ignored by the attacks of the western news agencies, throw full light on the concrete dynamics of the happenings and the reasons of the people involved. Showing up against the light the implications and the real contours of the larger issue that has opened around the case.

Francis An Shuxin, coadjutor bishop of Baoding [© Ucanews]

Francis An Shuxin, coadjutor bishop of Baoding [© Ucanews]

A badly told story
Hebei has long been one of the areas with a greater concentration of Catholic presence. And Baoding, since the time of the late Bishop Fan – whose dead body the police handed over to the family in April 1992 – is considered a stronghold of the so-called clandestine communities.
The sixty-year old Francis An Shuxin, at the center of the storm in recent months, is a spiritual son of Joseph Fan. He exercised his priesthood in the network of so-called “underground” communities and facilities, that is those not registered with government bodies, to become “clandestine” auxiliary bishop of Baoding in 1992. For that he spent ten years in prison and isolation under strict control, from 1996 to 2006. In August three years ago he was released, and started to exercise his pastoral ministry in the open.
The choice made by Francis An immediately aroused discontent and misunderstanding among the clandestine members of his diocese. Over time, the malaise of some priests and faithful, already opposed to his release from prison, has turned into open hostility to the bishop accused of treason, going as far as explicit rejection of his episcopal authority. Western agencies have spread widely on the net the charges supposed to prove that An has veered off the righteous path. Decisions such as that of co-celebrating Mass with John Su Changshan, “official” bishop of Baoding, recognized as such by the government but not by the Apostolic See. And above all his acceptance of positions in the diocesan Patriotic Association, the hybrid body created by the Communist Party as a means of controlling the Chinese Church. All this while the clandestine ordinary bishop of Baoding, James Su Zhimin, picked up in 1996 by the police, has still not been found. To complicate the picture, the most critical opponents of An have also involved the Apostolic See, spreading rumors about alleged pressure on the bishop from the Congregation of Propaganda Fide to get him to come out of hiding and cooperate with the authorities.
In the haphazard and tendentiously Manichean memory of agency reports and blogs, the story is in danger of being classified as a simple case of failure: a turncoat clergyman conniving with the persecuting enemy, in league with obscure Vatican officials who at least prove to be naive and confused. But is this really the case?

The Cathedral of Baoding [© Ucanews]

The Cathedral of Baoding [© Ucanews]

Document No. 1. The questioning of clandestines
The most detailed reconstruction of the dynamics of the case comes from a source hardly to be suspected of sympathy for Bishop An.
It is a long conversation held in late November between the bishop and a Chinese priest, who against An’s will, then published it in mid-December on www.ccccn.org, one of the websites linked to underground groups of the Catholic Church. The conversation – available in full in Italian on www.30giorni.it – sometimes takes an inquisitorial trend, with pressing questions that have the effect of bringing out more clearly the patient deposition of the bishop. An says that as early as 2000 he had noticed a certain change of pace in the political officials responsible for his forced isolation. At that time, “they too began to stress that one must obey the Pope, otherwise there is no Catholic Church. But one obeys the Pope in faith, discipline and doctrine”. The people talking to him continued to claim political and administrative control in the management of the ecclesial structure, adding however that “the administration we mean is a formal administration, it does not mean internal administration of the faith that you mean, because we cannot interfere in the affairs of your faith”.
In the interview, however, An makes clear that it was not the advances made by party officials that persuaded him to give up being a clandestine bishop. He gave much more weight to events and information that got rid of various clichés which had served him in observing and judging the affairs of the Church of China. “I learned,” the bishop says at one moment, “that the Pope had recognized many official bishops. First we thought that they had problems, but the Pope acknowledged them. If the Pope says there is no problem, what can we say? If we insist in saying that they are the ones with problems, then it means that it’s us who have problems”. An says that as a matter of fact, his first move to feel out the terrain was that of encouraging some “clandestine” priests to register with the political bodies. When he himself decided to take the step, he used ploys to document the sincerity of his intentions if nothing else: at the moment of signing the forms to get the “bishop permit” – a certification required for clergy in Hebei province – he refused to sign the sections on the self-election of bishops, adding an eloquent explanatory note (“in the intention of not violating the Catholic faith”) to the signed portion, where there was reference to the principles of self-management and independence of the Chinese Church. Then the government officials asked him to co-celebrate with the official bishop of Baoding, to make manifest the union. The celebration, presented by his critics as chief evidence of his scandalous failing, took place according to An in full respect of the canonical norms which prohibit sacramental communion with illegitimate bishops: “I concelebrated with Su Changshan because Su had asked many times for his legitimization by the Holy See, while knowing that the Holy See could not legitimize him because in Baoding there was still the legitimate ordinary bishop, Su Zhimin, and myself. The Holy See replied to Su Changshan that it did not allow him to exercise episcopal ministry, but granted that he function as a priest. Of course, at the time I was thinking how not to violate the principle of sacramental communion. For that reason, when we concelebrated, neither of us wore episcopal vestments or insignia”.
Put under pressure by the interviewer, the bishop also responds to other objections. Regarding the fate of Monsignor Su Zhimin, An admits that he has no news of the ordinary bishop of the diocese, but well recalls that “at the beginning of 1996 or the end of 1995, Bishop Su Zhimin wanted to come out of hiding, and I myself prevented him”. An also makes clear that he had accepted some months earlier the position of vice president of the local Patriotic Association, ensuring his “verbal” willingness only, without signing any personal registration to the “patriotic” organization. When the interviewer asks him if he does not realize he has violated principles by accepting a post from a group that sets itself above the Church, An replies with disarming simplicity: “When a diocesan bishop takes charge of the Patriotic Association, the important thing is whether the bishop is acting according to the faith or not. Even to us it seemed a little contradictory that some bishops had been accredited by the Pope while they had posts in the Patriotic Association. But in reality it is not at all contradictory. What the Pope acknowledged are the bishops. The Pope has never recognized the Patriotic Association. The bishops take the post simply to govern the diocese better”. The accused bishop repeats he had done only what he has seen done in other dioceses, where for decades, other bishops have effectively defused the pressure of the patriotic bodies on the life of the Church with the simple move of taking control of these organisms themselves. An several times reaffirms that his only intention was to settle the “anomalous governance of the diocese”, where the disorder is “not created by others but by ourselves”, to help “the faithful go to church in normal fashion”.
The bishop says he is aware of running “some risks”. But is encouraged by the impression of being in line with the suggestions of the Apostolic See, “I look only to the guidance of the Holy See, I act following the guidelines of the Holy See. In 1996 the faithful [of the two spheres, the “clandestine” and that recognized by the political authorities, ed.] could not even pray together, and that caused very serious harm... I’ve seen that at one time the diocese of Baoding believed that self-elected and self-consecrated bishops were deserving of punishment, that they belonged to a schismatic church, and that the sacraments administered by them were problematic. Later I learned that over eighty percent of those bishops were recognized by the Pope...”. In any event, An says he is ready to stand aside immediately, “if the Holy See tells me that what I did isn’t right”.
Indeed, as early as 2006, the Holy See sent a series of documents to Baoding that acknowledged legitimate authority to administer the diocese to the bishop who had just emerged from hiding. But those papal attestations have been repeatedly ignored by the groups of priests most critical of An’s decisions. Sometimes even resorting to specious arguments, such as lack of seals or signatures that are alleged to have rendered invalid the letters from Rome. And when the letter came from the Vatican promoting him from auxiliary to coadjutor bishop, An showed it as further proof of his episcopal authority to the priests who were challenging that very authority. In his reply to his questioner he reports that on that occasion his opponents “were unable to put up any doubt, but simply did not accept it”. For them An was not worthy to be bishop, after allegedly submitting to the demands of political officials and the patriotic apparatus. They set it down in black and white also in the letters of complaint they had been sending to the Vatican from the time the quarrel broke out.

Faithful in prayer before the crib in a church in the city of Qingdao, Shandong province [© Corbis]

Faithful in prayer before the crib in a church in the city of Qingdao, Shandong province [© Corbis]

The letter from Propaganda Fide
When stirring up the controversy some agency reports referred to anonymous Vatican and Baoding sources to argue that Bishop An came out of hiding under pressure from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. On 3 November, the Vatican department that deals with the Chinese ecclesiastical region issued a note of denial, unusual as it was categorical, published by the Fides agency.
In reality, the Holy See has not exerted pressure, but more than once has sustained the legitimate authority and person of Bishop An, even in writing. The most telling example is a letter dated 29 June 2008 sent to the bishops, priests, religious and faithful of the diocese of Baoding, signed by Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide. The document was also published on the site www.ccccn.org, and now the full text is available in Italian on www.30giorni.it, in our own translation from the Chinese.
The long missive is scattered with references to the Letter addressed by Pope Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics in June 2007 with the invitation to take it as a reference point on the path of reconciliation. The paragraphs referring to the particular situation of Baoding are unequivocal. Dias reminds the entire diocese of “the good fortune of having as legitimate bishops James Su Zhimin – though impeded, because still in detention – and his coadjutor Francis An Shuxin”. He writes that all, “without exceptions”, have a duty to acknowledge them as legitimate bishops of the diocese of Baoding, and also to support them materially and spiritually, “above all in the current circumstances, so very difficult and delicate for their mission as pastors. The traditional ‘nihil sine episcopo’ directive, repeated by the Pope in his letter, retains all its validity (no. 10, § 9)”. The prefect of Propaganda Fide assures everyone of the fact “that Pope Benedict XVI and the Holy See are well informed of everything that Bishop Francis An Shuxin has done since his release from prison”. He points out that everyone knows how he has “demonstrated his loyalty to Christ and the Church with more than ten years in prison”, always acting “with upright intent and goodwill for the welfare of the Church”. He flatly rejects all the allegations and resistance raised about his decisions: “Everyone must know that the esteemed bishop has the total support and confidence of the Holy See. Wherefore no one must permit themselves to doubt his sincerity, or challenge his authority, spreading thoughtless judgments that trouble the faithful. This, in addition to causing great pleasure among the enemies of the Church, is a grave lack of charity before God and the Church”.
Peremptory words that set out the story in terms as true as they are paradoxical: a legitimate bishop in full communion with the Bishop of Rome is rejected by some of his clergy, accused of being insufficiently faithful to the See of Rome.

Faithful during the Christmas Mass in the Xishiku Catholic church in Beijing [© AFP/Getty Images]

Faithful during the Christmas Mass in the Xishiku Catholic church in Beijing [© AFP/Getty Images]

The “confused Pope” and the hidden Letter
In a recent interview with the Ucanews agency, Bishop An admitted: “After my release in 2006, I refused to join the Patriotic Association. I changed my mind after reading the Pope’s Letter”. In the above mentioned questioning, An adds eloquent details on the reception of the Letter sent by Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics: “After the publication of the Pope’s letter of 2007”, says the bishop, “many priests [among those who oppose him, ed.] have prevented the faithful from studying the pastoral letter because they said the Pope was confused. In any case, they do not let people study it. And that in itself is already a problem... When these priests learned that the Sisters of the diocesan congregation had studied it in secret, there were arguments”.
The Letter of Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics, published 30 June 2007, is the most important document so far sent by the Apostolic See to the Church in China. But since its release there have been those who have pointed in more or less explicit ways to a lack of clarity making it open to conflicting interpretations, to the point of generating contrasting options on concrete and sensitive issues such as those dealing with the relationship between the Church and civil powers. Seventy-eight year old Cardinal Joseph Zen, as Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, after the publication of a Compendium of questions and answers about the papal Letter – which some, including Zen himself, claimed contained items requiring disambiguation – felt the need last November to draft and publish a guide of 22 pages for the proper interpretation of the Papal Letter. The role in situ of interpreter and mediator of the papal Letter that Zen has cut out for himself in recent months has met with growing applications and agreement in the affairs of the Chinese Church. Recently, while underground priests have been trying to share prayer meetings and catechesis with priests of the official communities, others, including heads of congregations, have opposed the matter, stating they want to follow Zen’s line rather than that indicated by the Pope and Rome.
The initiative of the Salesian cardinal who offers himself as the guarantor of the precise hermeneutics of a papal text looks out of the ordinary and self-inspired. In fact, the papal Letter to the Chinese contains instructions and suggestions clearly and easily intelligible sine glossa to its recipients, also on the most burning pastoral issues. And it does so in light of all the factors involved, and following the Catholic criterion of et et.
Benedict XVI, in the text signed by him on Whitsunday 2007, advocates an “open and respectful dialogue” of the Holy See and the Chinese bishops with the government authorities to help overcome the lasting “limitations that affect the heart of the faith and, to a certain degree, suffocate pastoral activity”. He does not order the clandestine bishops and communities to come out of hiding en bloc and hastily, let alone to persevere in that option. He writes that “clandestinity does not come within the normal life of the Church”, and in this way he points out clearly and in fatherly fashion, with no diktat, the direction to take. With all the patience in the world, waiting for those slowly following a path that will be long and not without obligatory halts and detours. Showing cordial and active sympathy for those who have most suffered, and perhaps still are suffering the stupid or brutal politics of local political officials. Taking into account all the factors that may in the particular situation hinder advance towards the goal or make it impossible. But with no uncertainty about what the way forward is. Without ever giving up the desire that all the bishops still in hiding “may be recognized as such by the government authorities also in law”.
As for the Patriotic Association and other institutions of control devised by the State, the Papal Letter repeats that their claim of setting themselves “above the bishops and of guiding the life of the ecclesial community does not correspond to Catholic doctrine”. What is described as “incompatible with Catholic doctrine” is not the existence per se of such bodies, but their stated aim of putting into practice “the principles of independence and autonomy, self-management and democratic administration of the Church”. There is also explicit reference to their “statutes that contain elements incompatible with Catholic doctrine”. But at no point is the systematic and immediate dismantling of the Patriotic Association demanded or suggested, leaving open the possibility that gradual reconversion through revision of its statutes may transform it into a point of contact between the Church and the political regime.
For the moment the Letter does provide clear criteria about how to adjust relations with civil authorities within the Catholic community. The Pope repeated that “it is licit to concelebrate with bishops and priests in communion with the Pope, even if they are recognized by the civil authorities and maintain relations with entities set up by the State and extraneous to the structure of the Church, provided the recognition and relation do not entail the denial of essential principles of faith and of ecclesiastical communion”. It is clear to the Pope that the preservation of the faith and sacramental communion do not, per se, go against dialogue with the various levels of political power, and that “we do not see any particular difficulties with acceptance of the recognition granted by the civil authorities, provided that it does not entail the denial of essential principles of the faith and ecclesiastical communion”. The Letter acknowledges, however, that in practice the procedures for recognition almost always involve adherence to gestures and formulas that can create problems of conscience for Catholics. “I understand”, the Pope writes, “how difficult it is in such varied conditions and circumstances to determine the correct choice to make”. The suggested interim solution to deal with such concrete contingencies manifests at a glance the dynamics of communion – also meant as a collegial sharing of responsibilities – that animates the entire papal Letter. Benedict XVI writes that “the Holy See, after reaffirming the principles, leaves the decision to the individual bishop who, having consulted his priests, is in a better position to know the local situation, to weigh the practical choices and to evaluate the possible consequences within the diocesan community”. The Pope also takes into account that the final decision may not win the consent of all the priests and faithful. In that case, he hopes that it may nonetheless be accepted, “even if with pain, and that the unity of the diocesan community with its own pastor may be maintained”.

The procession of the statue of the Virgin Mary at the Marian shrine of Sheshan (Shanghai) where on 1 May 2009, more than three thousand people came on pilgrimage [© Ucanews]

The procession of the statue of the Virgin Mary at the Marian shrine of Sheshan (Shanghai) where on 1 May 2009, more than three thousand people came on pilgrimage [© Ucanews]

The time of sowing
On balance, the decision made by Bishop An in Baoding is no more or less than an attempt to apply the Papal Letter of 2007. Questionable, like all human endeavors. But nothing to do with betrayal and turnaround. So the responses it has stirred suggest that perhaps the real problem is not the initiative taken by An. The problem, for more than one person, inside and outside mainland China, is perhaps the Pope’s Letter.
The Letter of Pope Benedict XVI suggests the criteria that in time may foster reconciliation within the single Catholic Church of China, after years of suffering, conflicts, accusations and nastiness between brothers in the faith. Its publication, without even the need to say, has sidelined Manichaean commonplaces and inveterate prejudices, like the one – by now grotesque – that says that in China there are two churches, one loyal to the Pope and the other to the regime. So it well may be that tacit mechanisms of removal and cover-up have been set in motion. Badly disguised attempts at nudging the Papal Letter into shadow. Or of encapsulating it in selective interpretations which mask from view the leading thread of the document and harp obsessively on individual phrases, carefully taken out of context, playing with the quotation marks in a somewhat cheating fashion.
Those who do so do not, usually, have the nerve to criticize the Pope, and so let it be understood that someone, maybe in Rome, informed and advised him badly. And so there is the danger in any case that the seeds of forgiveness and reconciliation that the Letter might sow along the path of the Church in China get dispersed, seeds that could germinate and help in time to put aside rending quarrels and heal wounds still open. It is no coincidence that Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, in his recent letter to Chinese priests on the occasion of the Year of the Priest – published in Fides on 17 November – reproposed reconciliation within the Catholic community and respectful and constructive dialogue with the civil authorities as the “guidelines” of the Papal Letter of 2007. “Just two years after publication of the Papal Letter”, the Secretary of State added, “it seems that now is not the time to draw up a balance sheet. In the words of the great missionary of China, Father Matteo Ricci, I think one can say that it is still time for sowing rather than harvesting”. Something that perhaps Bishop An and the sisters of Baoding had already guessed, thanks to their sensus fidei, without the need of interpreters.


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