Chinese Catholics worldwide rejoiced last week as a brave man in Shanghai diocese stood up for the principles of his faith against intimidation and certain retribution from state authorities.
Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin proclaimed his allegiance to the Universal Church publicly during his Vatican-approved ordination on July 7, and the response by authorities was swift.
It was only the day before that the China Church received a fresh wound with the illicit ordination of Fr Joseph Yue Fusheng of Harbin.
With unprecedented bravery and wisdom, Shanghai diocese handled the ordination of Bishop Ma with great care, surprising all close observers of the China Church.
Episcopal ordinations in the “open” or government-sanctioned Church community in the past few years have been abject failures. Strictly speaking, none were legitimate according to Canon Law and the teachings of the Church.
Ordainers of a legitimate bishop candidate were often forced to concelebrate with illicit bishops. In the last three illicit ordinations, all participating bishops were Vatican-approved – a serious breach of Church law for which excommunication can be the penalty.
Those bishops involved often used the excuse that they were “pressured” to take part, while observers remained unsurprised by such charades.
All criticisms and exhortations were of no avail to prevent these actions, and not even the threat of automatic excommunication could stop these illicit ordinations.
Members of the China Church fell into deep despair. What else was there to be done?
The ordination of Bishop Ma answered that question, and in the process told the fearful and the weak that Catholics still have the right and fortitude to say no to political power.
The ordination of Bishop Ma was originally a source of joy to the Shanghai diocese as it prepared to welcome its new pastor.
But when a vice president of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, himself an illicitly ordained bishop, was scheduled to take part in the ceremony, joy turned to sorrow. A rat had contaminated the soup, as it were.
When the diocese’s protests were ignored, it adopted a series of strategies to protect the integrity of Church law and the dignity of the Catholic community.
First, 90 percent of the diocese’s priests opted not to attend the ordination. Second, seminarians that attended as choir members and the altar servers donned purple albs, the color representing their grief and serving as a silent mark of protest.
Then as the bishops and priests prepared to enter the cathedral, a layperson stepped boldly forward to denounce the illicit bishop, causing a stir at the end of the procession.
Inside the cathedral, the co-ordaining bishops were seated far away from the main celebrant, Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian. Only priests sat close by the aging prelate.
At the key moment when all bishops bless the new bishop by laying hands on his head, no one wished to see any illicit bishop do so.
After Bishop Jin and two other Vatican-approved co-ordaining bishops laid their hands on him, Bishop Ma unexpectedly stood up and hugged the three remaining bishops who were approaching in a ceremonial manner, thereby avoiding their participation in the laying on of hands.
As he addressed the congregation after his ordination, Bishop Ma said he had been ordained as auxiliary bishop – the designation given him by the Vatican – and not coadjutor bishop, as the government had intended.
Loud applause erupted from the congregation after Bishop Ma declared that he would quit the government-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association, which is not recognized as an official Catholic body by the Holy See.
Those in power who have been sniggering over their ability to force unwilling bishops to yield to their commands were now confronted with the unyielding voice of the China Church.
It has been several months now since Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi of Shanghai mysteriously disappeared from view. Bishop Ma refused to move into his room, saying that he continues to wait for his return.
Perhaps after years of successful oppression, government authorities began to believe there was no battle they could not win and that no one would dare to oppose them openly.
Bishop Ma obviously caught them off guard. His actions and those of the diocese were not taken lightly or suddenly, but after careful consideration of the potential consequences.
And the consequences were swift in arriving. Bishop Ma is now prohibited from assuming his duties as auxiliary bishop.
Shortly after the ordination ceremony concluded, Bishop Ma was taken away and has since been prohibited from assuming his duties as auxiliary bishop.
Shanghai is an influential and powerful diocese in China. Bishop Jin will soon turn 100, and his successor will determine the future path of the diocese.
Chinese authorities do not want brave Bishop Ma to assume that leadership role, and it is likely that he will never be allowed to assume his ministry.
But he has accomplished a great deal despite official efforts to silence him.
Bishop Ma has inspired the China Church and reminded its members that they must put their faith ahead of their lives and their freedom.
He has also narrowed the gap between the open and underground Church communities, laying a solid foundation for reconciliation and communion. We can expect that more open communities will demonstrate their loyalty, while more underground communities will regard some open communities as their true brothers and sisters in Christ.
Bishop Ma’s courage struck at the heart of illicit ordinations. In future when illicit candidates bow their heads to the government, they will do so under greater pressure and at the risk of losing the support of their flock. Meanwhile, authorities will worry that future episcopal ordinations may prove another public embarrassment for them.
Thank you, Shanghai diocese. The China Church has learned from your confidence and courage. Remain strong. By fasting and prayer, we will be with you for upcoming challenges. We will accompany you during the tough times ahead and welcome any ray of hope.
Fr Zhong Guan is the penname of a priest in mainland China
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