A study session held by the Beijing government for leaders of the “open” Church – organized as a sight-seeing tour for the first time – is set to conclude tomorrow. The program, which was hosted jointly by the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Communist party and the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), began in the northeastern city of Harbin last week. Two dozen people participated, most of them officials of the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church of China, and included 16 bishops, a few priests, laypeople and one nun. Sources within the Church in China said most of the invitees to the tour have participated in recent illicit ordinations either in Leshan or Shantou dioceses. The two illicitly ordained bishops, Fathers Paul Lei Shiyin and Joseph Huang Bingzhang, both of whom are vice chairmen of the Patriotic Association and not recognized by the Holy See, were said to have also attended the study tour. The sources expressed concern that authorities might hold another illicit ordination when they learned the gathering was held in Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province. The bishop candidate for Harbin diocese has not received papal mandate. A participant in the study tour, who asked not to be named, refuted such speculation, saying the tour was “a get-together to strengthen the sense of ‘love the country, love the church’ among the bishops.” Accompanied by government officials, participants have spent the last few days visiting several tourist spots and historical monuments in the province, including near Heihe city near the Russian border, according to another attendee who also asked not to be named. “It is a relaxed journey in the cool weather of Heilongjiang that freed us from the pressures of work. Participants have proposed similar trips in the future.” Since the group included bishops who are out of communion with the pope, a few participants did not concelebrate Masses during the tour to avoid scandal, the attendee said. The group arrived in Beijing this morning and attended an informal discussion in the afternoon. Attendees are expected to meet UFWD head Du Qinglin, his deputy Zhu Weigun and SARA director Wang Zuo’an tomorrow to conclude the week-long event. The UFWD and SARA organize study sessions each year for young and middle-aged bishops, and for the most prominent members of the open Church each summer.
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