Updated: April 24, 2015 02:51 PM GMT
Chinese Catholic priest Liu Xinhong (left) joins his hands during his consecration as bishop at the Saint Joseph's Cathedral in Wuhu, central China's Anhui Province, May 3, 2006 (AFP Photo)
The visit of an illicit mainland bishop to Taipei during Chinese New Year has caused embarrassment for the Taiwan Church, fueling speculation that some in the Vatican may be ready to recognize ordinations authorized unilaterally by Beijing.
Bishop Joseph Liu Xinhong of Anhui province, who was ordained without Vatican approval in 2006, met with local and foreign missionaries during a four-day trip that ended on Tuesday.
He stayed at the Theology Faculty of St Robert Bellarmine in New Taipei City, where dozens of mainland Chinese priests, nuns and seminarians are studying.
But Taipei Archbishop John Hung told ucanews.com that he had no prior notification of the visit, while laypeople in Taiwan were unaware Liu was one of eight bishops on the mainland not recognized by the Vatican.
The visit was only made public when a laywoman posted a picture on Facebook of Bishop Liu having dinner with Jesuit Father Mark Fang and a few foreign and local priests and nuns at her home in Taipei. The photo was subsequently taken down.
“I learned of his visit only from that Facebook photo,” said Archbishop Hung.
Bishop Liu said he did not publicly concelebrate Mass with other clergy during his stay, an act that would have angered the Vatican, although he told ucanews.com he did do so privately.
“I went to visit an ailing priest,” he said after returning to Anhui.
Father Fang, who previously taught Bishop Liu at a mainland Chinese seminary, declined to say whether he had extended the invitation.
Meetings between illicit Chinese bishops and Church officials overseas are considered highly controversial because they are seen to legitimize unilateral appointments by Beijing, thereby undermining the authority of the Vatican.
Last April, illicit Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin of Kunming also visited Taiwan as part of a religious delegation arranged by the Chinese government. However, he only met with Buddhist monks at a shrine in southern Taiwan.
Bishop Liu’s visit has come at a time of improved but delicate relations between the Vatican and Beijing following the resumption of talks last year aimed at securing bilateral ties for the first time since the Communist Party took power in China in 1949.
“Liu could not come to Taiwan easily. There must be something behind it,” said a Church observer in China who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“Rome might want to solve the outstanding issue of the eight illicit bishops as a response to the Chinese government.”
Officially, the Vatican maintains that Beijing should concede the right to nominate bishops — a key sticking point — while also insisting that the government improve its record on religious freedom.
However, speculation has grown in recent weeks that elements within the Vatican may be willing to compromise on ordinations as a way out of the current impasse.
Recent interviews with mainland bishops by the official Vatican Agenzia Fides journalist Gianni Valente prompted criticism by Church figures against a softer position towards Beijing, including Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen.
“It is apparent that two different lines have appeared within Rome and the Church outside of China over China-Vatican relations,” said the Church observer.
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