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from issue no. 05 - 2004

The ordination of the first Chinese bishop publicly nominated by the Pope since the founding of the People’s Republic

Getting over the wall

by Gianni Valente

The ordination of the first bishop publicly nominated by the Pope in China since the time of the foundation of the People’s Republic took place in a very Chinese way. In Hengshui, in the province of Hebei, the priests and laity conducted a long and frank negotiation, which concluded only a little before the ceremony, in an attempt to agree with the political authorities on how to conduct the liturgy for ordaining the young Pietro Feng Xinmao as coadjutor bishop of the diocese, so that both the nomination received from the Pope as well as the governmental acceptance be made public during the ritual. Thus, on 6 January last, the liturgy began in the small local church, where the initial stages of the ceremony took place, including that in which the oldest priest in the diocese announced the papal nomination of the new bishop. After which, also so as not to disappoint the faithful who could not find room in the church, the people and clergy crossed the square and the liturgy of consecration was celebrated in, of all places, the great hall of the local House of the People.
Interest was aroused last summer by the open letter in which Giuseppe Han Zhi-hai, bishop of Lanzhou unrecognized by the government, affirmed full communion of faith with the Chinese bishops who are in communion with Rome, even though acting within the “patriotic” procedures and institutions wherewith the civil power controls ecclesial activities (cf. 30Days 10/2003, pp. 21-24). It resounded as an authoritative appeal to get over the division between “non-registered” ecclesial communities and the communities recognized by the government which in China had actually produced the phenomenon of two parallel episcopal structures (neither of which is recognized by the Vatican).
In the game of coded signals which the Vatican and the Chinese administration send each other in the absence of official channels for dialogue, this procedure “agreed” for the ordination of Hengshui, repeated on 29 April last at the consecration of Jinan, could represent a model for a provisional solution to be experimented, with a view to a tacit and gradual resolution of the anomalous situation. A process which the Holy See is going along with by suspending “underground” ordinations (the last without any recognition by governmental institutions took place mid way through the ’nineties) and trying in so far as possible to give its reserved consent to the nomination of candidates recognized as bishops by the government and not opposed by the so-called “underground” communities.

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