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Holy Week and the worldly path of the Sino-Vatican agreement

Depending on circumstances, it may not only affect the appointment of bishops in China but also in Rome
BishopPeter Wu Yishun, his priests and lay Catholics celebrating the Chrism Mass in Jianou on March 27, 2024

BishopPeter Wu Yishun, his priests and lay Catholics celebrating the Chrism Mass in Jianou on March 27, 2024 (Photo: Michel Chambon)

Published: April 05, 2024 11:26 AM GMT
Updated: April 05, 2024 12:23 PM GMT

As the Sino-Vatican Agreement will be once again negotiated at the end of the summer, questions about its effectiveness remain. With China trying to reopen communication with the West, the upcoming elections in the United States, and an aging pope in Rome, many wonder who will be truly able to influence the future of this agreement and eventually, take advantage of it.

The 2018 agreement has been repeatedly criticized for the leverage it gives to the Chinese Communist Party. Reports suggest that local officials use it to pressure priests and bishops unwilling to join the patriotic association.

Meanwhile, among the dozens of Chinese dioceses without a bishop, only nine have received a new one co-jointly appointed by Rome and Beijing. The productivity of this agreement is quite far from what China can achieve in other domains.

In this context, it is hard to not hear critical voices. At the same time, we cannot ignore the diversity of their motivations. Behind real concerns for Chinese Catholics, one can also find opposition to Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a cold-war mentality, anti-China sentiments, factional conflicts among Chinese Catholic leaders, etc.

The agreement stands as a battlefield for many teams, and some of them have quite a poor understanding of Chinese society and canon law. 

With this in mind, it is essential to return to Chinese Catholics themselves and evaluate the agreement from the ground. A number of international clergy members are currently taking advantage of the reopening of Chinese borders to circulate through the Middle Kingdom and catch up with the local Church.

Similarly, I was able to take some days off and visit China during Holy Week. With my daughter, we traveled to northern Fujian where I have conducted ethnographic fieldwork among Protestant and Catholic Churches since 2013. It was a wonderful opportunity to see friends and expose my daughter to Chinese culture. North Fujian is also the place where the latest hiccup of the Sino-Vatican agreement occurred.


The renovated Church of Wuyishan located in Fujian, China. (Photo: Michel Chambon)

Last January, the Vatican and Beijing agreed on three new episcopal ordinations. In one week — three priests were smoothly ordained bishops and one diocese was erected by the Vatican. This sudden landslide surprised many observers. But few noticed that there was a slight problem with the last ordination, the one in Northern Fujian.

Beijing and Rome had clearly agreed on who to appoint in this region but not on the exact territory he was to be in charge of. Beijing made Msgr. Peter Wu Yishun bishop of Minbei, but Rome made him the bishop of Shaowu (Minbei). Shaowu is an old apostolic prefecture that is only one part of Minbei. It is not Minbei. Furthermore, Rome did not erect the diocese of Minbei, and no explanation was given. 

I was therefore curious to return to Fujian to do tourism and see friends — including Bishop Wu who was supposed to attend my wedding in France in 2016 but couldn’t due to the sudden death of his father. I was curious to hear various points of view on this Shaowu (Minbei) mystery.

Since the Holy See erected the diocese of Weifang in January, why did it not do the same for the diocese of Minbei? How is Beijing perceiving this Roman refusal? Would that jeopardize future appointments? 

Before I try answering these questions, I would like to focus on people in Minbei and Holy Week first. Even though local traditions sometimes compete with official doctrines, Holy Week is theoretically the most important time of the Catholic liturgical year. During these few days, Christians commemorate and celebrate the most sacred facets of the faith. The mysteries of the Church come on full display.

For me, Holy Week began in the small city of Yanping (or Nanping until recently) where I lived between 2015 and 2016. On Palm Sunday, I had to visit a variety of Christian congregations, but I was also able to go to the Catholic Church. There, about 60 people attended Mass. But the city counts a few hundred Catholics — many among them being “underground.”

This suggests that these communities have not merged. But the former "underground" community is not gathering anymore on the hot and inconvenient rooftop that it used to occupy on Sunday mornings. It uses a better venue, more convenient, and well known by the administration.

In other words, the Church in Yanping is one with two chapels. Like in other parts of the world, communities coexist peacefully without merging.


Catholics attend Palm Sunday Mass at the Church of Yanping, China, on March 24, 2024. (Photo: Michel Chambon)

On Good Tuesday, while I was leaving Yanping, an American Jesuit magazine released an interview with Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for Relations with States and International Organizations.

The right arm of Cardinal Parolin made long comments on the wars in Ukraine and Palestine. Yet, his responses to questions about the Sino-Vatican Agreement were as short as the list of newly appointed Chinese bishops. Apparently, the British prelate has serious concerns about this agreement.

The same day, I took the high-speed train to cross the Diocese of Minbei and reached the beautiful site of Wuyishan. These mountains have generated the famous Da Hong Pao tea and inspired numerous painters. It is also where the Thomas Aquinas of China, Zhu Xi, established his Confucian school. Today, the region hosts a national park with convenient facilities and remarkable performances.

In Wuyishan, there is also a historical Catholic Church renovated in 2016. The parish compound is supervised by a nun from Fuzhou who has long served the official community of Minbei. The mass and weekly offices are celebrated by a priest who lives nearby and who has long served the underground community of the region. In Wuyishan, the two communities have found ways to merge and collaborate in respect of each other.

Before returning to the question of the Shaowu (Minbei) mystery, I would like to focus on one last important celebration of Holy Week: the Chrism Mass. Often on Good Thursday, but not necessarily, this Mass gathers the diocesan clergy around its bishop to renew the promises of ordination. The Chrism Mass is a key moment to embody and show diocesan communion.

It is also when the bishop consecrates the Oil of Catechumens, Oil of the Sick, and Oil for the Chrism for the entire diocese and year. During this specific Mass, time and space converge to celebrate the communion that Christ grants us. 

In Minbei, the Chrism Mass of 2024 was celebrated in Jianou — a city between Yanping and Wuyishan. With its newly erected church, it is where Bishop Wu is located. And this Chrism Mass was the very first one of the Diocese of Minbei. It was attended by all its priests.

Some of them might have identified with underground traditions, some with the official ones. But all care about the Catholic faith and the service of the people of God.

On March 27, they came together to pray around their new bishop. For sure, their different sensibilities and priorities remain. This makes the richness of the Church. But they also found ways to express their communion.

In light of these observations from Jianou, Wuyishan, and Yanping, we witnessed that in this diocese, there are different ways to slowly build communion, something that cannot be forced and something that should never be taken for granted. In China, despite the adverse weather that we often hear about, the situation is evolving, and the agreement is helping.

With this in mind, I would like to go back to the Shaowu (Minbei) mystery. Based on what I heard, it seems that the Holy See has decided to not immediately erect Minbei diocese to demonstrate its desire to hear all parties and not act too quickly.

If Rome has appointed Msgr. Wu as bishop of Shaowu (Minbei) — a quite unconventional phrasing — it is not because some Vatican employees have made a mistake. It seems to be because of the subtleties of Fujian.

In this province, the Archdiocese of Fuzhou doesn’t have a bishop yet and Catholics are divided in numerous chapels. The nearby conflictual case of Mindong has substantially improved. But in Fuzhou, the provincial capital, there is still room for progress.

If Catholics want to see a consensus emerge, time is needed. Therefore, to favor communion over division, the Holy See takes one step at a time to demonstrate its respect for all local actors. And apparently, Beijing is aware of this strategy. No offense was taken.

To conclude, I would like to return to Good Tuesday’s interview with Archbishop Gallagher. It is interesting to see how this top Vatican official is demonstrating frustration and dissatisfaction toward the Sino-Vatican Agreement.

It is as if the Secretary of State of the Holy See would like to dissociate itself from the agreement. After all the efforts it took and the gradual improvement it brings, this is interesting. Of course, this performed frustration can be seen as a way to put pressure on Beijing and to reassure some anti-China interlocutors.

But one may not forget that Cardinal Parolin has long been presented as the architect of this agreement. He is also an important papabile, a potential successor to Pope Francis. Hence, the performed frustration of his assistant might be a message to other cardinals: we hear and value your concerns.

If some power outages occur in Rome, Washington or Beijing in the upcoming months or years, the light of the Sino-Vatican agreement may flicker. Depending on circumstances, it may not only affect the appointment of bishops in China but also in Rome. And for the very first time, China might become an important topic of the conclave.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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