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from issue no. 05 - 2004

The obituary notices of the Chinese bishops in L’Osservatore Romano

A small sign of the passion for the unity of the Church in China

by Gianni Cardinale

It is well known that L’Osservatore Romano publishes on its second page, under the title, ”Mourning in the episcopacy”, the news of the “pious death” or of the “unexpected death” of all Catholic bishops as soon as news of their death reaches the Vatican. So that when the obituary notice of the Chinese prelate Michael Huang Woze, bishop of Nanchong, who died on 22 March at the venerable age of 99, apeared in the Vatican paper of 8 April, it might have seemed the usual thing. In fact that’s not how it was. It was an unprecedented event. And represents a small turning point, a “journalistic” matter but not simply that. Indeed it was the first time that L’Osservatore Romano had given official notice of the death of a Chinese bishop ordained after the break of the Beijing communist regime with the Holy See. Until now in fact the roughly 130 (*) Chinese bishops simply did not exist in the official Vatican publications, whether they were “official” (recognized by the government) – legitimated by the Holy See or not – or whether they were “underground”. None of the bishops are named in the Pontifical Yearbook, the official ‘Who’s who’ of the Vatican. And even less does L’Osservatore Romano publish on its front page the nominations of the new Chinese bishops recognized by the Holy See, as it does instead for all the dioceses in the world. And the Vatican newspaper has also been careful not to publish the obituary notices. At least until 8 April. On that date in fact, as we said, the figure of Monsignor Huang Woze, “official” bishop and recognized by the Holy See was remembered. And it was not a routine obituary. L’Osservatore Romano in fact, after recalling how the «zealous pastor continued to visit the parishes of his vast diocese up until the last months of his life, despite the fact that he was suffering from diabetes», went on to say: «Those who had the chance to visit him testify with what love he showed them the photo of the Holy Father, John Paul II, the only decoration in his modest study».
Then on 9 May the obituary notice of 91 year-old monsignor Francis Xavier Guo Zhengji, bishop of Bameng, was published, he too “official” and in communion with Rome. In his case L’Osservatore Romano of 16 May also published, in high profile on page 4, an account of the funeral which stressed that the «faithful of the “clandestine” community» also attended the funeral service, «another sign of the “passion for unity” which animates the Church in China», «a sign of hope and collaboration». «The faithful of the “underground” community», L’Osservatore then added, «wanted to pay their respects to the bishop and to unite themselves with the brethren of the “official” community, reaffirming their conviction that the two communities are one single family».
But after 8 April the Holy See’s paper did not pay attention solely to the Chinese bishops in communion with Rome, even if “official”. L’Osservatore Romano of 30 May in fact, on page 5, reprinted a news item from the Fides news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, about the funeral service, held on 24 May in the Cathedral of Tianshui, of Monsignor Augustine Zhao Jing-nong, who died on 16 May aged about 95. In this case the paper did not print the news in the section “Mourning in the episcopacy”, but did call Monsignor Zhao «Excellency» and « Prelate». Zhao Jing-nong was in fact the “official” bishop of Tianshui, validly consecrated, but not recognized by the Holy See. The different treatment by the Vatican newspaper may be explained by the fact that the prelate in question, though reconciled with Rome in the last years of his life, had not been given legitimation. Fides and L’Osservatore Romano concluded their memorial: «Monsignor Augustine Zhao was considered a good and just man by all. The priests of Tianshui reported always seeing a set of rosary beads in the prelate’s hands, except when he was eating or doing other things».

(*) Recently Civiltà Cattolica – the proofs of which are widely known to be corrected by the Secretariat of State – wrote: «[In China] the number of bishops belonging to the official Patriotic Catholic Association is 79, and 49 to the underground Church. But the Holy See recognizes many bishops in the Association: in other words, two thirds of the bishops are recognized de facto by Rome» (6 March 2004, p. 505).

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