Rome (AsiaNews) - In a stifling hotel lounge Tian Tai Beijing, the Ninth Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, the sovereign body that directs bishops, priests and laity, began yesterday. According to the State Administration there are 365 delegates from 31 provinces and municipalities for Religious Affairs (SARA), although judging the hall’s capacity there seem to be much less. The gathering (the "Great Ninth" as media call it) will last until December 30. Attendees include priests, nuns, lay people, members of the Government (especially the United Front and SARA) and bishops.
At the last gathering, in December 2010, the Vatican had asked the bishops to "avoid making gestures ... that contradict communion with the Pope". This Assembly had been judged "incompatible with Catholic doctrine", as it submits the authority of the bishops to the meeting and pursues the ideal of Church independence (from the Holy See).
This time, perhaps because of rekindled hopes for dialogue between China and the Vatican, the Holy See, while reaffirming its "known" position with regard to the assembly, has not given any indication to bishops whether to participate or not. In a statement released just a few days ago, the Holy See said it reserves the right to judge the Assembly on the basis of "concrete facts" and expects "positive signals" from the government. This position which has been judged as too vague by Chinese Catholics, has given the green light to many bishops to unscrupulously take part in the meeting.
The bishops present include Msgr. Ma Yinglin of Kunming (Yunnan), president of the so-called Chinese bishops' conference (not recognized by the Holy See because it does not include underground bishops); Msgr. Fang Xingyao of Linyi (Shandong), vice-president of the Patriotic Association; Msgr. Han Yingjin of Sanyuan (Shaanxi); Msgr. Dang Mingyan Xian (Shaanxi), the newly ordained Tang Yuange of Chengdu (Sichuan); Msgr. Chen Gongao Nanchong (Sichuan); Msgr. Luo Xuegang in Yibin (Sichuan); Msgr. Zhan Silu of Mindong (Fujian); Msgr. Guo Jincai of Chengde (Hebei). Offical reports claim that there are at least 59 bishops, mostly recognized by the Holy See, as well as eight illegitimate and excommunicated bishops who, according to some were supposed to have been reconciled by the end of the Jubilee, but this has not happened. The names of the absent bishops and the reason for their absence is still unknown. In 2010, many bishops who did not participate – following the recommendation of the Holy See - were forced to take part in the Assembly.
Many Catholics in China look to the meeting as a matter of course and without surprises, but they want to see how the leadership will change. At that meeting in fact the new President of the Council of Bishops will be chosen and the new president of the Patriotic Association.
Among the possible candidates for the first charge is the name of Msgr. Joseph Shen Bin, 46, bishop of Haimen (Jiangsu), or that of Msgr. John Baptist Yang Xiaoting, 52, bishop of Yulin (Shaanxi).
Among the candidates for the presidency of the Patriotic Association, is the name of Msgr. Joseph Guo Jincai, 48, the illegitimate bishop of Chengde (Hebei). The first two are both bishops recognized by the Holy See; however the latter is one of eight illegitimate bishops.
A part from this other issues on the meeting’s agenda include a revision of the regulations on religious activities as well as the amendments to the statutes of the two groups (Bishops and the Patriotic Association).
Although the themes may not appear very significant, the atmosphere is highly significant: every intervention delivered yesterday exalted the "independence" of the Church (from the Holy See); Its "autonomy" (in theology, in management, in the jurisdiction), the "patriotism" of the faith ( "ai guo, ai hui": first love the nation, then love the Church), the mantra repeated by Ma Yinglin, Fang Xingyao, Wang Zuoan (director of SARA), etc ...
Another item on the agenda is the assimilation of the President Xi Jinping’s address to the religions in the meeting with the United Front last April. In it he asks the religions "Sinicize themselves" (moving away from the West); to "serve the reform and development of the nation" and to support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.
In words, these sentences would seem to open up a future for religions and the Catholic Church at the service of the Chinese people; in reality it unambiguously points to a State church, controlled in all of her movements and projects.
It was precisely for this reason that Card. Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and a great champion of religious freedom, in his blog on December 24, had said that the Chinese government "wants an unconditional submission" of the Church and that the Assembly is “the most formal and explicit expression of the 'schismatic' nature of such a Church".
This position has also been reiterated by the Hong Kong Justice and Peace Commission which two days ago, December 26, demonstrated in front of China’s representation in Hong Kong, denouncing that the Assembly is contrary to Catholic doctrine.
What is also of note is the change in tone in the Chinese world. In the days following the Vatican statement, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry began to use very moderate tones regarding the Vatican and the Catholic Church without speaking of issues such as autonomy, independence, of self-appointment of bishops, relations with Taiwan. Yesterday, however, the Global Times newspaper (close to the Chinese Communist Party’s People's Daily), published an editorial returning to the tones and demands of old, laying out the conditions for a constructive dialogue to arrive to diplomatic relations. These "requirements" are: "recognition of the One China" (break ties with Taiwan) and "no interference in China's internal affairs", including the appointment of bishops.
One Catholic has thus commented: "The Vatican asked for 'positive signals' and all it got was a slap in the face. The Assembly extolls the independence of the Church from the Holy See and all dialogue is back to square one".