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China and the Vatican: read our in-depth 12 month report

Special report on Vatican-China Church relations

China and the Vatican: read our in-depth 12 month report

June 24, 2011

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Relations between China and the Vatican seem to swing constantly from the amiable to the Arctic. Here we trace their progress over precisely 12 months, from June 24, 2010 to June 24, 2011.

June 24 2010… Joseph Han Yingjin is ordained Bishop of Sanyuan. The fourth bishop to be ordained in China this year, he has been given both papal and government approval. About 3,000 people pack Sanyuan’s Sacred Heart Cathedral to witness the ordination, attended by six more China/Vatican approved bishops.
July 29 2010… Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kuin, an outspoken commentator on China-Church affairs, ridicules an article which contends that Beijing wants bishops who are appointed by the pope. “If this reflected reality,” he writes, “we would have reason for rejoicing….but is it really so? From the pieces of information that we happen to gather here in Hong Kong, the reality is much less encouraging.” He ends his monologue: “may God save us from all evil.”
November 17 2010… Vatican-appointed bishops are reported to be under pressure to attend the November 20 ordination in Chengde, Hebei province, of a bishop not approved by the Vatican. Priests in Hengshui diocese say local government officials took their bishop away to pressure him to attend. They are also concerned about losing contact with another bishop, whose phone has been switched off for days.
November 18 2010… Details emerge of more legitimate bishops being coerced to attend the Chengde ordination. It is said they will be escorted there by security officials. “If these reports are true, then the Holy See would consider such actions as grave violations,” says a Vatican spokesman. He adds that “the Holy See, keen to develop positive relations with China, has contacted the Chinese authorities and made its position clear.”
November 20 2010… The ordination of Father Joseph Guo Jincai takes place as planned. The area is surrounded by police, cameras are banned and phone signals blocked. Some sources point out that the laypeople of Chengde, who are simple in their faith and esteem the pope, have no choice but to accept their new bishop, given the political situation. This is the first illicit ordination in four years, and the first since Pope Benedict XVI reiterated in 2007 that the pope must have “supreme spiritual authority” over bishops’ appointments.
November 24 2010… A Vatican communiqué says the Holy Father “deeply regrets” the illicit ordination. It warns that the Holy See will evaluate the incident, including the validity of the ordination and the canonical position of the bishops who took part, even though it may have been against their will.
November 24 2010… About 100 seminarians in Hebei province go on strike over an attempt to appoint a government official as their deputy rector. One protestor says “a seminary trains future priests, not  party members.”
December 2 2010… Veteran China Church observer Ren Yanli says the Chengde ordination has wasted years of effort. He describes it as “incomprehensible,” pointing out that no illicit ordination had taken place for four years.
December 6 2010… Father Jeroom Hendryckx appeals for a return to “dialogue.” He points out that, when Father Guo was elected candidate in 2008, Rome had no objections but asked for a postponement, as the diocesan borders had recently been changed. Beijing refused and went ahead. He describes the bishops, priests and Catholics of Chengde as “the true victims of this incident” and asks why some media have put the blame on them. Finally he suggests that the incident should prompt the Church in China to re-evaluate itself.
December 6 2010… Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kuin savages Father Hendryckx’s article.
December 7-9 2010… The Eighth National Congress of Catholic Representatives takes place in Beijing. There are more allegations of bishops being coerced to attend and subjected to heavy “briefings” behind closed doors before the event, on matters of protocol and voting. Elections are held on the final day for key posts; one observer asserts that abstentions are counted as votes of support. An illicitly ordained bishop is elected president of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, a body unrecognized by the Vatican. The newly – and illicitly – ordained Bishop of Chengde is named secretary general. The Vatican does not recognize the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association either, but a bishop who does enjoy papal approval is elected as head. The choice of venue for the event is perhaps ironic: it’s the Friendship Hotel.
December 17 2010… The Holy See issues a strongly worded statement expressing “profound sorrow” over the Congress. It raises the issue that attendance was imposed on the delegates and says that “the persistent desire to control citizens’ lives and interfere in the internal life of the Church does no credit to China.”
April 13 2011… Against the background of the “Arab spring,” China’s crackdown on humans rights activists extends to Christians who are not affiliated to the government-sanctioned “open” church. At least three “underground” priests in Hebei province are detained and taken to unknown locations; one priest is reportedly tortured and there are fears for the others’ safety. Witnesses say one of the priests was taken away by literally dozens of officers.
April 14 2011… Following a meeting of the Commission on Church in China, the Holy See Press Office releases a communiqué entitled “Moved by love, a message to Chinese Catholics.” Its tone is conciliatory. “We hope that sincere and respectful dialogue with the civil authorities may help to overcome the difficulties,” it says.
April 14 2011… Church-in-China experts contend that the Vatican communiqué is designed to leave the door open for dialogue. One analyst describes it as “unexpectedly mild.”
May 11 2011… Shantou diocese in southern Guangdong province holds a vote on a bishop candidate, under the watchful eye of public security officers. One priest says afterwards that “there were more plainclothes ‘helpers’ than voters” and describes the atmosphere at the event as “heavy handed”. The only candidate, Father Joseph Huang Bingzhang, is duly elected. Some voters say they did not act according to their consciences but for the sake of their careers and families.
May 16 2011… At the end of a public audience in Rome, Pope Benedict asks for prayers for the Church in China, so that it may “remain in the one universal Church” and overcome “the temptation to follow a path independent of Peter”. He nominates May 24 as a special day for prayer as it is the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, who is greatly revered by Chinese Catholics.
June 1 2011… Wuhan diocese in Hubei province (not to be confused with Hebei province) announces the ordination of a bishop unrecognized by the Vatican. The date is set for June 9. Church people claim that, once again, local bishops are being pressed to attend the ordination and the candidate himself, Father Joseph Shen Guo’an, is unwilling to accept the post.
June 3 2011… Despite the controversy over the Wuhan ordination, an official from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association calls for China and the Vatican to resolve the issue. “Before the next case turns up, we hope China and the Vatican could further their talks to solve the problem. Time is limited and the key is in the Vatican’s hand,” he says. Meanwhile, four upcoming ordinations are announced in Sichuan province, one with an unrecognized candidate.
June 7 2011… The Wuhan ordination is postponed. The candidate, Father Joseph Shen Guo’an, says he does not know why, or when it will take place. But there are suggestions that his own stout resistance played a major part in the postponement. While some observers say it does not imply the end for illicit ordinations, others interpret it as a positive sign for both China and the Vatican.
June 10 2011… Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai, a Hong Kong native and the Vatican’s new secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, frankly criticizes Beijing. He also confirms that a new mood of confrontation, instead of accommodation, is pervading Rome. He explains that some bishops and priests submit to coercion because they are punished if they do not. “They lose state subsidies for their diocese; they encounter obstacles to their everyday pastoral work; they are penalized in their careers; they do not receive permission to go abroad or travel inside China; and they are forced to undergo re-education courses,” he says. But he also advises “those bishops and priests who feel weak or unable to resist the pressure to ask to be exonerated from public service and have the courage to suspend their ministry.”
June 13 2011… The Vatican keeps up the pressure with a new document, stating that people involved in illicit ordinations could be excommunicated. The document stresses Canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law, which says that “a bishop who consecrates someone a bishop without a pontifical mandate, and the person who receives the consecration from him, incur a latae sententiae excommunication.”
June 14 2011… Church observers attempt to soothe the situation by claiming that the Vatican document is not specifically aimed at China. “It is a goodwill reminder to Catholic clergy worldwide not to violate the canon,” says one of them.
June 24 2011… Exactly one year after this account opens, Leshan diocese in Sichuan province announces that a new bishop will be illicitly ordained on June 29. Not only is the new bishop unrecognized, sources close to the Vatican say he can never be canonically approved. The exact reason why is not disclosed, but it is said that it is “very grave” and well known to local priests, bishops and even the government-sanctioned bishops’ conference. Some Leshan Catholics say they will protest outside the church if the event goes ahead.
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