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from issue no. 09 - 2011

The treasure and the vessels of clay

by Gianni Valente

The coadjutor bishop of Nanchang interviewed in these pages was originally called John Baptist Li Shuguang. His Chinese name was made up of two ideograms: 书 [shu] which means book and 光 [guang], which means light. When he became a priest, John Baptist chose to modify the first of the two characters, transforming it from 书 [shu] to 稣 [su]. A slight change, almost imperceptible to those who do not speak Mandarin, created for the sole purpose of introducing the same character into his name that appears in the name of Jesus (耶穌 Ye-su). So now the bishop’s personal name can be translated into Italian as ‘light of Jesus’.
In China today, affection for Jesus by those who bear His name can result in expressing itself also through subtle details, to be grasped immediately, by interior and implicit understanding. Similarly, different passages of the answers that the bishop of Nanchang provides in these pages can also be read in silhouette. Like the one in which he hopes that the bishop of Rome takes note of ‘the concrete cultural and social situation in which the Church finds itself living in China’. Or the other in which he indicates as a sign and foundation of communion with the Successor of Peter and the Universal Church the unity around the same sacraments and the same prayers, in fidelity to the same Apostolic Tradition.
John Baptist Li Suguang was ordained bishop on 31 October 2010 with the approval of the Holy See and with the recognition of the Chinese authorities. At the liturgy of consecration, besides the three consecrating bishops, eighty priests were present, including some priests of the Church related to the ecclesial area known as ‘underground’. After the celebration, the new bishop publicly expressed his intention to foster reconciliation between the Catholic communities registered with the State apparatus and those who distance themselves from the government’s religious policy.
Before John Baptist Li Suguang, in 2010 alone, eight other young Chinese bishops were ordained with the consent of the Pope and with the parallel official recognition of the government. At that stage, the ever troubled story of Sino-Vatican relations seemed still to be capable of moving towards promising developments.
Compared to then, the present scenario appears again to be turning out for the worse. Between 20 November 2010 and 14 July 2011, three new episcopal ordinations, without the consent of the Holy See, imposed by the patriotic apparati under slogans of the supposed ‘independence’ of the Church in China have reset to zero the prospects for a mutually agreed solution to the issue of appointment of bishops that has always been the raw nerve in the relations between mainland China and the Vatican. For the first time since 1958 – the year when China began the illegitimate ordinations imposed by Beijing – the excommunication latae sententiae of two bishops ordained illegitimately was publicly confirmed in official pronouncements of the Vatican.
Also the new group of ‘child bishops’ to which Li Suguang belongs (who last 14 July participated in the illegitimate ordination of Joseph Huang Bingzhuang as bishop of Shantou) is called into question by yet another negative phase of relations between China and the Vatican. The forty-year olds who with the jump of a generation find themselves at the head of the Church in China are accused by many of surrender in relation to the religious policy of government interventionism. Distrust and suspicions of lukewarm fidelity have resurfaced in their regard, similar to those reserved in past decades for those bishops who had accepted in varying degrees to subject themselves to the interventionism of the regime in the religious field. Including the great bishop-witnesses such as Anthony Li Duan and Matthias Duan Yinmin, who faced persecution and hardship to pursue to the very end their priestly vocations in the years of the Cultural Revolution.
Compared to that of their predecessors, the new generation of bishops appears to many observers as more fragile and timid. In both the ‘official’ and in the so-called ‘underground’ areas cases of clerical careerism, with young priests continuously seeking ecclesiastical and political advocacy to reach the episcopate, have been registered .
The complex situation recommends caution and thoughtful evaluation of all factors involved in the individual cases. The same possible episodes of clerical opportunism in a Chinese context can not be separated from the obfuscation that also exists elsewhere on the nature of the episcopal ministry itself. The erroneous concept that interprets the appointments of bishops and their movements from one location to another as awards and honors granted to officials of a universal bureaucracy distinguished by their ability to cultivate relationships of power, is certainly not an exclusive ‘made in China’ production.

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