Mgr. An Shuxin says he was not pressured by the Vatican for his choice. In front of the division created in the diocese of Baoding, priests and experts are asking the Vatican and China to free the ordinary Bishop Su Zhimin, , in prison for the past 13 years.
Beijing (AsiaNews) - "I joined the Patriotic Association (PA) for the good of the diocese and the urgent need to evangelize," so says Mgr. Francis An Shuxin, coadjutor bishop of Baoding. Speaking to AsiaNews he explains his decision to join the official Church and his acceptance of a post within the PA, after decades in hiding and 10 years of captivity in an unknown location, in the hands of police.
Mgr An made the choice in late July when he joined the government-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) and the Catholic Church Administrative Commission (CCAC) of Baoding city. The bishop was released from prison in July 2006 and August 2006 had begun to carry out his ministry in the official Church. Speaking to AsiaNews by telephone, Mgr. An clarifies that his joining the two organizations did not involve the signing of documents, but only a verbal agreement.
Recently, some of his priests have expressed their grief and puzzles over the diocese’s leadership and current situation. The Patriotic Association is an organization whose ideal is to build a Church independent from the Holy See and Benedict XVI himself, in his Letter to Chinese Catholics (June 2007), notes that objective as "incompatible with Catholic doctrine."
The purpose of his joining of CPA at a city level, he said, was to assume a position for a better management of the diocese so that the local Church can function normally, in accord with the country’s religious policy of the country. “I hope the diocese can develop well” and meet the needs of the diocese to evangelize, he noted.
As a bishop, he wants to function openly, and those positions can help him better manage Church affairs, such as restoration of Church properties, he noted. Furthermore, he said, the Holy See has recognized many bishops on the mainland who have CPA titles, he noted. Prior to his joining the CPA, he did not communicate with the Holy See on this issue, he said.
AsiaNews asked Msgr. An whether he would attend the postponed National Assembly of the Catholic Representatives Conference in China once convened. In this assembly the national president of the PA and the chairman of the Council of Bishops (a sort of Episcopal conference of the official bishops not recognized by the Vatican) are voted for. Many bishops boycott it because the assembly is "incompatible with Catholic doctrine." The PA’s intention is to make sure that the chosen candidate of obedient to its will and is waiting to bend the bishops under its control, sot it continues to delay (by almost two years) the date of the meeting.
Bishop An said the assembly is for someone with titles, and he is not one of those.
However, many Catholics and Church-in-China experts disagreed to Bishop An’s move to join the PA, regardless of his reasons and considerations, since it contravenes the principles laid down in the papal letter of 2007. “If necessary, I will quit the CPA,” Bishop An said.
Resentment towards Mgr. An is heightened by the fact that the ordinary bishop of Baoding, Mgr. James Su Zhimin has disappeared in police custody since 1996. He was seen only briefly in a hospital in November 2003 and until a few days ago it was not even known if he was still alive. But exactly where he and some arrested priests are being held, is still unknown.
Some priests in Hebei (the region of Baoding) accuse Mgr. An of not having made his choice together with Mgr Su. They point out that Mgr. An should have left hiding (and prison) only with Mgr. Su. But Bishop An says “I have no means to see him (Bishop Su). He is under strict house arrest”.
To heal the divisions among Catholics in Baoding, some think Bishop. Su Zhimin must be freed. Anthony Lam Sui-ki, senior researcher of the Holy Spirit Study Centre, says it is “very unfortunate” that Bishop An joined the PA, particularly after the papal letter to Chinese Catholics. At the same time Lam told AsiaNews that the release of Bishop Su could restore the divided situation of Baoding diocese.
Likewise, an open-Church priest Joseph from Hebei, who was in the underground Church before, thinks “Bishop Su can comfort the heart of the underground community of Baoding and clear the name of Bishop An. Then the change can take place.”
Father Joseph says that “mutual forgiveness and dialogue among Catholics in Baoding is what they must do. China-Vatican negotiators can only reach an agreement in negotiation times, this is very important of course, but this is external matter only. The China-Vatican authorities must come to agreement to let Bishop Su out first.”
Regarding the difficulties that Baoding diocese faces, Bishop An stated he did not cause the problem and has no means to mend the situation. He said some priests cannot cooperate with him, probably because they “cannot put down their old concept” to accept the “new” ones to work openly and normally. Yet, he remains open but will neither find them nor “reject” anyone to return.
He sees the hope of Baoding rests upon the efforts of local Catholics to make the Church a better one and with deeper spiritual growth. “I pray for God’s guidance everyday,” he said, calling for prayers for Baoding diocese.