The state-sanctioned Catholic Church in communist China has approved and installed another underground bishop loyal to the Vatican but Catholic leaders were not fully informed about the move, church sources said.
Bishop Paul Ma Cunguo of Shuozhou was installed at a public ceremony in Shanxi province on July 9. He is the fifth underground bishop to be recognized by the state-sanctioned church since the Vatican and China signed a deal in September 2018 on bishops' appointments.
Bishop Ma, 49, was installed as bishop in the cathedral of Shuozhou Diocese in a ceremony presided over by Bishop Meng Ningyou of Taiyuan, director of the provincial Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), the state-sanctioned church.
Father Yang Yu, deputy secretary-general of the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC), read out the conference's approval.
Bishop Wu Junwei of Yuncheng, director of the provincial Church Affairs Committee (CAC), and Bishop Ding Lingbin of Changzhi, deputy director and secretary-general of the provincial CAC and provincial CPA, attended the ceremony.
However, the ceremony was a low-profile affair and the Vatican was not fully informed about it.
A participant seeking anonymity told UCA News that the ceremony was attended by about 20 priests and 100 faithful from Shuozhou Diocese, representatives of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and BCCCC, and leaders from city, district departments, the provincial CAC and CPA and plainclothes police.
The reduced number of participants was attributed to restrictions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. Only those tested negative for the virus the day before the liturgy
could attend, the participant said.
UCA News learned the Vatican was not fully informed about the developments. Bishop Ma told UCA News that he was not aware of its details because his information was limited because of epidemic restrictions.
However, Bishop Ma said the date and liturgy of the ceremony were decided by the two provincial councils of the CAC and CPA.
The low-profile ceremony was not reported in the media until Italian media began to report it last week.
An Italian newspaper interviewed Bishop Ma in March 2015, when he said he had "high hopes" for the Sino-Vatican talks "as a dialogue with the government also helps promote ecumenism in the Church."
A church source told UCA News that the Vatican representative in Hong Kong had no prior knowledge of the episcopal installation, and the representative did not receive any information from the Vatican on the matter.
Social media circulated a copy of Bishop Ma's oath, which differed from those made by the previous four bishops installed by the state-backed church. The oath had no insistence on working for "an independent, self-governing church" in China.
It said the bishop would abide by God's command, fulfill his pastoral duties as a bishop and proclaim the Gospel faithfully. He will be faithful to the one holy Catholic and apostolic church, and was committed to building up the church, the body of Christ, and contributing to evangelization.
The oath also asked diocesan priests to abide by the country's constitution and laws, uphold the unity of the nation and social harmony, love the country and the church, and contribute to the "realization of the Chinese dream."
Bishop Ma was born in 1971 and graduated from Shanxi seminary. He was ordained a priest in 1996.
He was appointed coadjutor bishop of Shuozhou in 2004 at the age of 33. In 2007, when his predecessor died, he automatically became the bishop of Shuozhou.
Bishop Ma told UCA News that he had no opinion regarding his change from the underground to the open church.
When asked why he wanted to join the open church, Bishop Ma said: "It's not easy to do some of the work without going open."