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from issue no. 07/08 - 2005

Quietly quietly, let's make peace

How and why the ordination of the new auxiliary bishop of Shanghai has inaugurated a new phase in the relations between the Holy See, the Church in China and the Beijing government

by Gianni Valente

At the moment of the Eucharist the non-baptized also line up, with their arms crossed on their chests, to receive the bishop’s blessing

At the moment of the Eucharist the non-baptized also line up, with their arms crossed on their chests, to receive the bishop’s blessing

The ordination of the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai Joseph Xing Wenzhi is not the first nor the last to have happened in China in recent times with the approval of the government after there was the prior (and somehow publicly known) nomination by the Pope. Already in 2004, with the ordination of Peter Feng Xinmao as coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Hengsui, three new Chinese bishops had seen to it that during their rite both the nomination received from the Pope and the election held in line with the “democratic” procedures imposed, since 1958, by government organizations for the purpose of eliminating all «Vatican interference» in the religious life of the country, were announced at the same time. After the one in Shanghai, on 26 July last, the new coadjutor bishop of Xian, Anthony Dang Ming Yan, was also consecrated respecting all the clauses of the procedure acceptable to the government, after the pontifical nomination had arrived from Rome and the diocesan representatives had democratically elected him as the designated successor of Anthony Li Duan, the great bishop of Xian, unfortunately very ill.
And yet the Shanghai ordination represents a crucial development and opens a new phase in the most delicate point – the nomination of bishops – in the anomaly of the relations of the Church in China with the Holy See for half a century. Because Shanghai is the economic and moral capital, the locomotive of the “Chinese century” prophesied by analysts and already imminent. Because its Catholic community has historically played a prominent role in the affairs of Christianity in China. And because the concrete procedure in which this ordination happened allows a preview of new ways whereby the problematic relations between the Vatican, the Chinese Church and the Beijing government could pursue the wished for normalization.

The idea of indicating Joseph Xing to the Roman departments as the possible successor of the by now ninety-year old Aloysius Jin grew within the Shanghai Church out of Jin’s own insight and he won the agreement of his collaborators and the majority of his priests and laity in charge. The pontifical nomination, issued some time before the health conditions of John Paul II worsened, was kept secret, and the document of attestation also, after having been seen by the most authoritative and respected priests of Shanghai, was “filed away” forever. Then, on 17 May last, the 27 representatives of the priests, the nuns and the laity of the diocese of Shanghai, elected Xing by a majority vote as the auxiliary bishop of the diocese. Only after that did the conference of Chinese Bishops and the government approve the results of the election. Finally, the consecration. On 28 June last, before the ceremony, Bishop Jin confirmed almost en passant to the more than sixty Shanghai priests about to enter the Cathedral in procession that the ordination had the approval of the Holy See. During the liturgical rite, no explicit reference was made to this approval, nor was any document read that attested the nomination by the Pope. The newly consecrated bishop swore to be «faithful to the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church, with Peter at its head».

It is in the light of this long procedure that the “denials” and the eloquent silences that accompanied and followed the Shanghai ordination should be read. Such as those issued by the Office of Chinese Religious Affairs and the Patriotic Association to contradict the imprecise and misleading forays of Western agencies that had spoken of «joint approval» between China and the Vatican regarding the episcopal nomination of Xing. As Anthony Liu Bainian (vice-president of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, the government organization for the control of the life of the Church) emphasized to the Ucanews agency, the Conference of Chinese Bishops approved the nomination of Xing after he had been elected by the majority of the Catholic representatives of the diocese of Shanghai. Liu added that «if it is then true, as the international news bulletins report, that Bishop Xing was recognized by the Pope, I am happy to see that the Holy See has made a step ahead, recognizing the principle of self-election and self-ordination of bishops in China».
In effect, there was not – and there could not yet be – any direct agreement between the Holy See and the Chinese government about the Shanghai ordination. As Anthony Lam Sui-ki, researcher for the Holy Spirit Center of the diocese of Hong Kong, explained, also to Ucanews, in this phase «Beijing would not ask the Vatican to give its permission for the election of a bishop, and neither would the Holy See consult Beijing before granting its own approval». Also because «Beijing always proclaims that the Church in China is “independent, autonomous and self-financed”, and that if the bishop was nominated by the government, it would belong to what the media describe as a Church controlled by the government. Because of this Beijing has always been careful to emphasize that the bishops are chosen by election [by the Catholic representatives of the diocese, ed.] and the government in itself is not involved in the approval or the nomination of the bishops».
Despite the ritual denials, the Shanghai ordination remains in fact a type of “tacit accord without agreement”, appeasement based on the implicit, on the unspoken, on the unsaid. If the Chinese emphasize the complete formal consonance of the election with the State’s rules, the emphasis does not go so far as to exclude that there was also the Papal nomination.

The Holy See has maintained absolute silence about the whole matter. Refraining from any confirmation of the nomination that in this delicate phase could be read as a revindication of jurisdictional powers over the new bishop on Rome’s part. By this silence the people responsible at the Holy See defused in advance any setback. Thereby avoiding a repeat of the disaster of June 1981, when the bishop of Canton Deng Yiming, received in the Vatican with the tacit consent of the Beijing leaders, was elevated to the rank of archbishop. An act that was read by the Beijing leaders as an attempt to assert jurisdictional prerogatives, still to be negotiated, over the bishop, thus supplying them with the pretext to break off the then incipient possibility of the normalization of Sino-Vatican relations.
The Vatican silence removes the excuse of those in the Chinese government machinery who would like to sabotage the processes of normalization and maintain the status quo, if only perhaps for fear of losing position and authority within the nomenclature. The delicacy also aims at making clear, against all outworn prejudice, that the bond of communion between the bishops and the Pope cannot in any way be judged a case of “interference” in the internal affairs of states. And because of this any competition between government and Vatican on the question of episcopal ordinations is completely out of place.
But the new Vatican approach can certainly not be read as an indication of acquiescence. It expresses rather the ever more realistic perception of the “Chinese question” reached in the Vatican palaces. Up to the end of the ’nineties, the perspective was blurred also in the Vatican by widespread pockets of mistrust of that section of the Chinese Church that was more collaborative with the government. In January 1995, the priests of the “open” churches, coming to Manila to see the Pope on World Youth Day were supposed, according to Vatican instructions, to sign a solemn profession of faith to “demonstrate” their faith (then everything was resolved more soberly by a Credo recited together). Now, the shared confidence itself in the sensus fidei of the Chinese Catholics – bishops, priests, religious, laity – is the new factor that allows the Holy See to shape its strategy in different fashion. Leaving to the discernment of the local pastors the management of complex situations and the search for solutions. It was seen in the case of Shanghai, where the Holy See did not demand that the Papal nomination be explicitly mentioned during the rite of ordination. And this prospect could also suggest concrete applications in the event of the start of direct negotiations between the Vatican and the Peoples Republic (for example, in working out the atypical profile and sui generis jurisdiction of an eventual apostolic nuncio to Beijing).

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