Yibin diocese has a new bishop. Preparations for the event, carried out under the firm guidance of Chinese authorities, included round-the-clock security for the “protection” of the clergy ahead of today’s rite. More government officials than Catholics attended yesterday’s rehearsal to ensure no unusual circumstances would arise during the ceremony. In particular, officials had hoped to avoid any interruptions by clergy opposed to the presence and participation of Father Paul Lei Shiyin, who was illicitly ordained as bishop of Leshan diocese in June and subsequently excommunicated by the Vatican. The Vatican approved the bishop candidate Fr Peter Luo Xuegang last year, and his status was confirmed by Fr Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, earlier this week. It is too soon to take comfort in the fact that Fr Luo assumes his post with the blessing of the Holy See. Fr Luo serves as chairman of the Yibin Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), founded in 2009 and strongly supporting an independent Church that is incompatible with the doctrines of the Universal Church. The bishop candidate left no doubt about his personal views on the subject when he gave a speech of support for self-election and self-ordination of Chinese bishops during a formation program for CPA leaders in Beijing last month. In light of these opinions, what kind of shepherd can we expect the new bishop to be to his flock? And what can be said about the claim from the excommunicant Fr Lei that his presence at the ceremony would be beneficial for the development of the China Church? Such grand sentiments prompt a simple question: What kind of development in the Church does Fr Lei hope to achieve? Can the Church prosper under the guidance of an illegitimate leader? What will the Church become if it abandons its fidelity to the Holy See? As an excommunicant, Fr Lei can only benefit the Church by not attending the ordination. Today’s ordination also highlights the considerable work still ahead to normalize relations between China and the Vatican and resume the path of dialogue. Beijing will find that it has no choice but to insert Fr Lei into the ordination to reinforce its position on independence of the China Church. The government will certainly disregard the advice of Fr Lombardi that no illegitimate bishop should participate in the ordination ceremony. Recent televised comments by Wang Zuo’an, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, clearly illustrate Beijing’s ambivalence to Rome. “There were excommunications in the past and there is excommunication now. It makes no sense to use because we have been electing and ordaining bishops on our own all along,” Wang said. He added: “Of course, if [the Vatican has] to resolve China-Vatican relations, you have to solve all these problems for us.” From Rome’s perspective, excommunication is a medicinal penalty employed for the good of the offender and will not be lifted unless the offender has repented his or her sin. A return to the path of dialogue is sensible and crucial, particularly as two “underground” bishops have been in prison for more than a decade and two dozen other priests have been detained without trial. Their release should be the condition on which dialogue is resumed. But there is much work to be done, even if dialogue resumes, to repair the breach between China and the Holy See. Both sides hold firm to their own positions and have little room to compromise, even though they have tried to avoid direct confrontation over Fr Lei’s presence at today’s ordination. Xiao Cao is a pseudonym used for security reasons by a Church worker in Hong Kong
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