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from issue no. 01 - 2010

Litterae communionis between Rome and Baoding


A letter from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone makes known the guidelines and suggestions of the Pope in relation to the case of Francis An Shuxin, the coadjutor bishop of Baoding accused of betrayal by some priests of his diocese for having decided to leave the clandestine condition. Benedict XVI invites all to walk the path of reconciliation. And meanwhile confirms Monsignor An as head of the diocese. Even though the bishop has accepted a position in the local Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the instrument of the government's religious policy


by Gianni Valente


When disputes and issues arise among the children of the Church, it is often the case that all direct their gaze to the Bishop of Rome, although he is physically distant. Maybe they are only seeking the verdict of the impartial judge who knows how to divide right and wrong according to justice, and instead it happens that they also find something better.
It also happened recently to the priests, religious and lay faithful of the Chinese Catholic community of Baoding, in the province of Hebei.
There, for some years, hearts were divided over the case of Francis An Shuxin, the bishop ordained clandestinely (that is without the placet of the religious policy of the Chinese regime) who since 2006, after 10 years of imprisonment and isolation, chose to leave the clandestine state and exercise his pastoral ministry in fidelity to the Pope and also in accordance with the procedures and requirements imposed by the government. All this while the other “clandestine” bishop James Su Zhimin, first titular of the diocese, is still inaccessible, after being removed by police forces in 1996.
From the beginning, some of the underground priests had considered the decision of Bishop An as a type of about-face, coming to question the legitimacy of his episcopal authority. The controversies and reproaches reached their most virulent phase in the second half of 2009, when the opponents of Bishop An published as a proof of the alleged “betrayal” his willingness to accept an appointment in the diocesan structures of the Patriotic Association.
In the growing controversy, guidelines and suggestions from the Apostolic See arrived several times to the Catholic community in Hebei, always aimed at stemming the venomous contagion of laceration and doubt. The last, most recent and most authoritative invitation to reconciliation came from the Pope: a letter from the Vatican to the diocese of Baoding in which Benedict XVI confirms the episcopal authority of Francis An and desires that all diocesan priests recognize this, despite the position taken up by the bishop in the Patriotic Association.

“Dear Brother Bishop”
The letter, written on behalf of the Pope by the Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, is dated 10 February 2010 and bears the protocol number 696/10/RS. This is a reply to the letter sent to Benedict XVI by Francis An himself on 12 November 2009, with which the bishop referred his case to the Pope asking him for concrete directions on what to do. Bertone refers in the opening lines to the Pope's appreciation for the “sentiments of faithfulness to Christ and the Church and filial devotion to the Successor of Peter” expressed by Bishop An in his letter. Then, afterwards, the papal guidelines relating to the troubled events in the diocese are provided.
Benedict XVI, through Cardinal Bertone, makes known the “great attention” with which he follows the life of the Church in China, with specific regard to the diocesan communities “living in particularly difficult situations”. The Pope declares himself “spiritually close” to Bishop An, and sends a special blessing to Bishop Su Zhimin (mentioned three times in all in the new papal message), whose condition of segregation that prevents him from exercising his proper episcopal ministry for the benefit of the people entrusted to his pastoral care is recalled.
In the central part, the letter focuses directly on the choices made by Bishop An that most aroused contestations by a part of the clergy of the diocese, and in unambiguous words loosens the knots still unresolved.
One of the main charges directed against An was his choice to celebrate a Mass with John Su Changshan, “official” bishop of Baoding, recognized as such by the government but not by the Apostolic See. Regarding that incident, the letter says that “everyone is now in a position to know that this occurred because Your Excellency was aware that Bishop Su Changshan ardently desired and insistently requested full communion with the Holy Father”. It also refers to the letters sent by Su Changshan to the Holy See with which – it explains – the illegitimate bishop assured that his episcopal ordination without an apostolic mandate had occurred against his will and told of his sorrow for the plight in which he had come to find himself. “This case”, the Secretary of State makes known on behalf of the Pope, “is to be considered closed”.
Afterwards, the papal letter touches the sore point of the role of vice president of the Diocesan Patriotic Association that Bishop An has agreed to assume. With not insignificant subtlety, the text does not mention any “enrolment” of An in the patriotic organization, seeing that the bishop limited himself to verbally accepting the position that had been proposed to him. In the message arrived from Rome, it is made known that the “delicate and complex” issues and difficulties raised by this matter are known to the Holy See. The guidelines provided by the text sent by the Vatican are clear and concrete: “In your specific situation”, Cardinal Bertone writes on behalf of the Pope, “such a decision should have been avoided. Nevertheless, in the present circumstances it seems preferable for Your Excellency not to give up, on your own initiative, the possibility you have at present of acting in an official way and to accompany and lead all your priests, whether official or clandestine”. In the letter sent by the Vatican it is assured that the Apostolic See will continue to monitor the situation in Baoding, and in the face of further significant developments will not leave Bishop An without practical criteria for guidance. “In the meanwhile”, the letter recommends, with a suggestion implicitly addressed to the entire diocese of Hebei, “the Holy See counts on the obedience which the entire clergy of Baoding owes you in the absence of Bishop Su Zhimin”. In the final part of the letter, Cardinal Bertone asks to make known to the Catholic community of Baoding the directions received from the Pope, “in the manner you consider most opportune”. Because of this, from the second week of March, the full version of the text has appeared in Chinese and English on the website of the diocese.

Neither winners nor losers
With the suggestions and directions in the Letter of 10 February to the bishop and the diocese of Baoding some of the guiding criteria that Benedict XVI had outlined in his Letter to Chinese Catholics of May 2007 have been applied to that particular case – which has become emblematic and significant for all of China.
In that magisterial document it was recognized that the procedures for the approval of local communities by the civil authorities – necessary in order to function publicly – may involve difficult and controversial choices for the consciences of Catholics, because still managed by those “patriotic” agencies inspired by the Party and unrelated to the structure of the Church which also claim to exercise a leading role in the life of the ecclesial structure. Therefore, in each single concrete case, and “after having restated the principles”, the operational decisions are left “to the individual bishop who, having consulted his presbyterate, is better able to know the local situation, to weigh the concrete possibilities of choice and to evaluate the possible consequences within the diocesan community” (Benedict XVI’s Letter to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China, ch. 7). The Pope had also taken into account that the questionable choices of the individual bishop might not find the consensus of all the priests and faithful. In this case, it was hoped that these decisions be however upheld, “even if painfully”, to maintain the unity of the diocesan community with its own pastor.
Precisely the controversial issue of Bishop An’s relations with the Patriotic Association gave also the Holy See the opportunity to follow the guidelines set by the Pope himself in his Letter of May 2007. In the complex pastoral situation of Baoding the direct involvement of the bishop in the patriotic body rekindled the malaise and disputes between those clandestine priests and faithful who had already criticized his decision to leave the clandestine situation, and in the letter of 10 February it is written that such involvement “should have been avoided”. But once the bishop decided to accept the post of vice president of the Diocesan Patriotic Association, the Apostolic See acknowledged his decision and did not ask him to go back. The “presence” of Bishop An in the patriotic organisms did not delegitimize his episcopal authority in the eyes of the Holy See. Artificial dialectical contrasts were not raised between doctrinal principles and those pastoral choices which were stubbornly presented by some as cowardly and reprehensible forms of surrender in the face of the illegitimate claims of the regime. On the contrary, in the letter drafted by Cardinal Bertone on behalf of the Pope it is suggested to An not to leave on his own initiative the condition in which he has put himself, which now allows him to publicly exercise his role of guide and companion for all the priests of the diocese, “whether official or clandestine”.
With these directions, the potential effectiveness and pastoral appropriateness of the criteria set out in the Letter to Chinese Catholics of 2007, when they are actually applied to the given conditions, can be glimpsed by all. That text entrusted to the bishops the judgment about how to move in local circumstances, taking into account the contexts and circumstances. Bishop An acted within the criteria and the possibilities considered in the Papal Letter of 2007. And the Holy See, adhering in the facts to that apostolic collegiality that is also the assuming of shared responsibility, renewed its confidence in him, confirmed him in his episcopal authority and asked everyone to follow him, even those who still at present disagree with the choices made by the bishop.
The same delicate and heartfelt trust is reserved also for them: the critics who have so far very energetically expressed their disagreement towards Bishop An, almost to the point of rejecting him as shepherd of the diocese. In his February Letter there is no trace of reproach for them, there is no diktat. The Pope only makes it known that he himself is counting on their sensus Ecclesiae: even those who have previously suffered several persecutions because of their faith, and maybe now find it harder to accept the decisions of the bishop, will be helped by their own faith to eventually accept the new situation.
Thus, by suggestions, the directions reproposed in the letter sent by the Apostolic See to Baoding also allow a glimpse of where a possible new beginning for the troubled diocese in Hebei may come from. This does not have to do with attempting false balances of rights and wrongs, to determine who won and who lost, as happens in the disputes of the world: also because there are never any winners but only losers in sectarian tendencies that maybe in the name of the intransigent attachment to their own beliefs eventually finish by lacerating the communion and complicating the access of the faithful to the means of the life of grace. Instead it is exactly the sacramental nature of the Church that can reveal itself in the relationships among its members, including the relationship between the bishop and his priests. It can sustain over time, with patience, without undue outside pressures, that miracle of reconciliation that can only pass through the hearts and minds of individuals, embracing all and forgiving everything. So that it may be easier for all Christians of Baoding “to live peaceful and quiet lives with all devotion and propriety” (1Timothy 2, 2), as Saint Paul wrote in his first Letter to his friend Timothy.


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