Illicit bishops look back on turbulent decade
January 26 2010
The ordination of a total of five bishops without papal mandate in Beijing's Immaculate Conception Cathedral (South Church) on Jan. 6, 2000, sent shockwaves through the Church around the world.
Although China has been electing and ordaining its own Catholic bishops since 1958, the ordination, the largest batch in a single ceremony since 1987, caused controversy, as on the same day Pope John Paul II also ordained 12 bishops at the Vatican.
The event destroyed expectations of China-Vatican normalization at that time, Anthony Lam Sui-ki, senior researcher of Hong Kong diocese's Holy Spirit Study Centre, told UCA News.
It also laid the basis for a period of difficult relations that lingers today.
The prelates spoke to UCA News about the different journeys they had taken.
'Very sure it was God's call'
Bishop Francis Lu Xinping of Nanjing, the youngest at the age of 36 then, recalls the personal struggle he experienced before the ordination. He finally decided to obey his bishop, accepting the special situation of the local Church. He said he was always "very sure it was God's call."
The bishop was legitimized by the Vatican in 2007 but not before some painful times. Many seminarians refused to be ordained by him and some Catholics even refused to accept his leadership.
"I understood their feelings but fortunately most Catholics still respected me," he said.
Nanjing diocese currently has 40,000 Catholics although about 5,000 continue to attend Mass celebrated by "underground" priests.
Conflict between the two Church communities has now subsided, Bishop Lu said.
In recent years, he has suggested to episcopal candidates that they "gain papal mandate for their ordinations" to help their ministries run smoothly, he said.
Although Nanjing diocese could not hold a celebration for Bishop Lu's 10th ordination anniversary due to a retreat by clergy, Mindong diocese's government-approved Church community in eastern China held a thanksgiving Mass and banquet on Jan. 9 for Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu.
It was attended by hundreds of Catholics, central and local government officials and Anthony Liu Bainian, the Beijing-based vice-chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
'An interlacing of pain and joy'
Bishop Zhan, the only bishop who remains illicit, told UCA News the past decade has been "an interlacing of pain and joy." He has experienced "ups and downs, frustrations and pressures," but God has guided him.
Bishop Zhan, 48, is still waiting for papal approval.
Of Mindong's 70,000 Catholics, several thousands attend government-approved Church services under his jurisdiction. The rest follow underground Bishop Vincent Huang Shoucheng.
Some Mindong underground priests told UCA News that while they still "cannot be in communion" with Bishop Zhan with regard to the sacraments, they would accept his leadership if the Vatican recognized him.
Of the five men, Bishop Peter Fang Jianping of Tangshan, 47, was the first to receive papal approval in 2002 but he still bears scars.
His ordination raised such "turbulence" in the Church, Bishop Fang recalled, that he feels there is nothing worth celebrating, even after 10 years.
He said he has preferred to keep a low profile and work behind the scenes.
In June 2008, he succeeded retired Bishop John Liu Jinghe, who was legitimized recently.
The other two prelates ordained at the same time were elderly Bishops Andrew Jin Daoyuan of Changzhi (Lu'an) and John Su Changshan of Baoding.
Bishop Su died in December 2006. The Holy See had been unable to settle his application for legitimization as it could not seek advice from Bishop James Su Zhimin (alias Zhemin), the underground prelate who has been in detention since 1997, Church sources say.
Appointment of bishops remains an obstacle
Sources said the Holy See approved Bishop Jin as "a legitimate bishop without jurisdiction" in mid-2008, and required him to recognize Bishop Paul Li Yi as the head of Changzhi.
However, Bishop Li, a Vatican-approved bishop who is not recognized by the government, told UCA News he and Bishop Jin have not reconciled yet.
"I invited him to concelebrate the Chrism Mass last April but he did not come," he said. The two bishops in their 80s continue to work separately, each leading about 20 priests.
The issue of bishop appointments remains a major obstacle to China-Vatican ties, which continues to have its ups and downs. Currently, more than 90 percent of the 88 mainland bishops are Vatican-approved.
No illicit ordinations have been reported since Pope Benedict XVI's letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007 stressed the pope's supreme authority to appoint bishops.
However, Church observers say it is premature to conclude there is consensus on bishop appointments.
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