ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong
Updated: September 16, 2016 10:43 AM GMT
The funeral rites for Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang of Wenzhou were held at the small hilltop church in Ma'ao village in Yongjia county on Sept. 13. (Photo supplied)
The new bishop of Wenzhou, China's most Christian city, was taken away by security officials on "gardening leave" to prevent him from presiding at the funeral of his predecessor, Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang, who died Sept. 7 at age 89.
"Gardening leave" is a British euphemism whereby an employee who is leaving a job (having resigned or been made redundant) is instructed to stay away from work during the notice period, while still remaining on the payroll. In this case the clergy will return to work.
Coadjutor Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin, who has Vatican recognition but is not endorsed by the Chinese government, was one of four clergy taken away from their diocese in eastern Zhejiang province more than a week ago when the health of Bishop Zhu turned critical.
A priest, who asked not to be named, said the three others were Father Paul Jiang Sunian, diocesan chancellor, who was taken to southwestern Yunnan province; Father John Kong Guocun who was taken to neighboring Fujian province; and Father Joseph Lu Xiaozhuo who was taken to Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.
"I heard from government officials that they will send the clergy back on Sept. 14 as their primary aim is to stop them from showing up at the funeral," the priest told ucanews.com.
"They were not kidnapped or arrested but are on 'gardening leave.' They were taken separately on sightseeing tours accompanied by security officers," he added.
As far as the Vatican is concerned, Bishop Shao is Bishop Zhu's automatic successor and his subsequent "gardening leave" poses further questions about the sustainability of the Vatican's talks with Beijing aimed at reaching a deal on the appointment of bishops.
At present, the pope appoints bishops who are also approved of by the government. But the Communist Party-controlled bishops' conference has also appointed its own bishops with some not having Vatican approval.
At the same time, about 30 underground bishops, including Bishop Shao, do not have recognition from Beijing.
The deceased Bishop Zhu managed the "open" church community with dual approval from the Vatican and the Beijing government.
Coadjutor Bishop Shao, 53, administers the "underground" community of about 80,000 Catholics, almost double the size of the open community.
Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou (left) and a layperson at the entrance of Guide National Geo Park in Qinghai province. The image was posted on Sept. 7. (Photo from Bishop Shao's Wechat account)
Photos on social media
Two photos uploaded to Bishop Shao's Wechat social media account on Sept. 7 show the prelate in the presence of a layperson at the Guide National Geo Park in far flung northwestern Qinghai province.
"Taking leave in northwestern China to appreciate the greatness and beauty of God's creation," the photo's caption read.
"The images were designed to show that the bishop is physically safe in his trip and that laypeople could visit him," said the priest who asked not to be named.
Another church source, familiar with both the open and underground church communities in Wenzhou, said: "If the images were uploaded at the demand of the authorities, it is to sow discord between the open and underground communities to make it less likely for the two communities to dialogue."
The source said the last thing the government wants to see is unity between the two communities, given that the underground bishop is now the only prelate in the diocese.
A researcher in Chinese politics, who asked not to be named, told ucanews.com: "With China-Vatican negotiations on bishops' appointment in progress, I think the action has been the subject of consultation and happened with Beijing's approval."
Thousands join funeral procession
Bishop Zhu's funeral was held at the small hilltop church of Ma'ao village in Yongjia county on Sept. 13.
The authorities previously restricted funeral attendees to be no more than 400 and 3,000 in the following funeral procession. On the day about 600 Catholics packed the funeral rite while 5,000, including some Catholics from the underground church, joined the procession to bid farewell to their bishop.
Father Ma Xianshi, who currently heads the open community, preached the funeral homily.
"Where the bishops are, there is the church. And a bishop is a sign of the communion of bishops," said Father Ma.
"But Wenzhou diocese continued to suffer division despite successive bishops' efforts and has yet to achieve full communion," he said. "We pray to God and seek the intercession of Bishop Zhu to build unity in the church of Wenzhou."
A procession carried the ashes of Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang of Wenzhou to the church cemetery on Sept. 13. (Photo supplied)