A Holy Week deal between Rome and Beijing?

Rumors are swirling that a long-mooted agreement on bishops appointments could be nigh
A Holy Week deal between Rome and Beijing?

Cardinal Joseph Zen, 86, former Bishop of Hong Kong has earned a reputation as a fighter — the octogenarian's latest battle pits him against Vatican officials and Beijing over a deal he believes would devastate the Catholic Church. (Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP)

One of the biggest critics of a potential deal between Beijing and the Holy See on the appointment of bishops, Hong Kong-based Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kuin, believes that the landmark agreement could be signed as early as March 23.

In a lengthy blog post that attacked his growing list of critics, the retired prelate, 86, noted that such an agreement is rumored to be inked on "March 23 or 27." And while he claimed to remain unsure if a final agreement could be reached, he reiterated recent promises to respect any deals reached by Pope Francis and fall silent if it is completed.

The retired cardinal has said publicly and privately that: "If the agreement is signed, I will hide and pray and no longer express any opinions or say anything because it is impossible to oppose the pope. However, before the agreement is reached, being a cleric, and also understanding China, I have the responsibility to give advice."

Cardinal Zen also wrote on his blog that until he saw a deal: "I refuse to believe that it can be real.… Only if that unfortunate signing happens, rumored to be on March 23 or 27, I will accept defeat, retire in silence."

Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, former director and founder of the Belgium Verbiest Foundation and an expert on Catholic China, recently wrote an article titled "2018 the Year of Truth" to comment on the Sino-Vatican agreement. And Cardinal Zen's comments come amid growing speculation that a "Holy Week" deal could be inked.

Associate Professor Lawrence C. Reardon of the Department of Political Science University of New Hampshire said: "It is interesting to read the most recent ucanews.com report coming from the CPPCC/NPC (Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, National People's Congress) meetings, especially the comments from the excommunicated bishops."

"I'm assuming that those interviewed sought and received forgiveness from the pope. If true, I'm guessing there will be an attempt to announce an agreement during Holy Week, which starts on March 25," said Reardon.

The timing would also suit Beijing, with the ruling Communist Party coming off the back of its annual two meetings of the rubber stamp parliament — the NPC and its so-called advisory body, the CPPCC.

At the NPC meeting, Chinese leader Xi Jinping secured effective presidency for life should he want it and installed his allies in key posts including his chief lieutenant and former anti-corruption star Wang Qishan as vice president (also with an unlimited term).

The NPC was also noteworthy for having bishops in senior roles from the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association speaking out in favor of a bishops deal.

Bishop Peter Fang Jianping of Tangshan, an NPC member, said he hoped Sino-Vatican relations would have a good result this year, and he was confident the two parties could reach an agreement on the appointment of bishops.

Bishop Fang, who had been "illicit" but is now recognized by the Vatican, noted that if mainland bishops could obtain legal status from the Vatican, it could effectively promote Sino-Vatican relations and the development of the China Church.

The bishop said the progress and specific content of the negotiations are not very clear. But he believed that China and the Vatican have been working hard for years to reach an agreement, and there were now no theoretical obstacles between the two parties in the negotiations.

As a member of the CPPCC, Bishop Paul Lei Shiyin of Leshan told the media that if diplomatic ties between China and the Vatican were established, it would have a good impact on China's international influence. He added that diplomatic ties would benefit the implementation of religious policies while allowing the church to conduct its work more normally on the mainland.

Excommunicated Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu of Mindong, who was interviewed by Hong Kong pro-Beijing newspaper Sing Tao Daily on March 10, said Sino-Vatican relations have made a big breakthrough. "There are no obstacles if everyone just thinks of the benefit of the church for the sake of peace," he said.

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Still some have suggested that the agreement could be postponed to sign in June, such as Hong Kong Father Anthony Chang Sang-loy, who supports the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China and comments on the Sino-Vatican talks on his Facebook page.

According to the figures released by the Holy Spirit Study Centre, there were about 9 -10.5 million Catholics in China as of 2015. The Chinese government has released a figure of about 6 million but others believe there are uncounted numbers in the underground church, so the ratio of open church believers to those of underground church is estimated at between 50-70 percent.

According to Guide to the Catholic Church in China written by Father Jean Charbonnier MEP there are more than 100 dioceses in China (the official government figures is 97 while the Holy See recognizes 138).

The number of bishops in China is more than 100. Some of that number have been appointed by the authorities; some are recognized by both the state and the Vatican and others, around 30 percent, are solely recognized by the Vatican.

The Vatican has said the agreement would mainly be focused on bishops appointments. This means that seven illicit bishops, only recognized by the government, would be recognized by the Holy See and two underground bishops of Shantau and Mindong, one who is 86 years old, would step aside for to the illicit bishops. The Shantau bishop has been requested to retire and the Mingdong bishop is to become an auxiliary.

Some observers have suggested that the terms of the agreement would be similar to  the "Vietnam Model" of 2010 where the Bishop's Conference selects a list of potential bishops (in Beijing's case, perhaps the state run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association) which are submitted to the pope, one by one for study then possible approval.

*An earlier version pf this story has been updated to correct to clarify the Vietnam model

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