Rome (AsiaNews) The illicit ordinations which took place in China several weeks ago seem to have shattered the timid signals of dialogue with the Vatican which had began last year upon the death of John Paul II. With a China evermore flooded with social tensions, we wonder why Beijing would have wanted to create another front which has opened the country to the criticism of the international community, not least that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who sees the lack of religious freedom as an element confirming the weakness and fragility of China's system.
Another snag in the "ordinations" question has emerged over past days in Zhouzhi (Shaanxi), where Bishop Wu Qinjing, ordained by the late Archbishop of Xian, Anthony Li Duan, is not being recognized by the government, which defines his ordination as "illegal". Actually, local authorities had thought to fill that position with another priest, Zhao Yinshen, famous for his nose for business and for having done the government favours. The only problem is that no Catholic respects him.
Yet, just in past days, the Foreign Ministry said once again that "China sincerely wants to improve relations with the Vatican." At the same time, in the afternoon of May 19, the Religious Affairs Bureau convoked 19 young bishops ordained in the past year to Beijing. Chairing the meeting was Liu Yandong, director of the United Front and member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Michael Fu Tieshan, patriotic bishop of Beijing who is suffering from very bad health, also appeared to speak about the (illicit) ordinations which took place in Kunming and Wuhu; Wang Zoar, deputy-director of the Religious Affairs Bureau for Catholics, was also present. The purpose of the meeting which had been kept top secret was to instruct young bishops on the government's religious policy and to reaffirm the desire to go forward with the policy of naming and ordaining bishops "independently" of Rome.
Such an encounter, with high-level government figures, seems to confirm the fears and analyses of those who say that the illicit-ordinations move had come from the central government. It is to be said that, if such is the case, Beijing has truly made a spectacle of itself. As news arrives on the ordinations of April 30 and May 3, we learn that the Patriotic Association struggled considerably to find bishops who were willing to ordain new candidates: it spread false news that "the Pope had given his permission" and had had to wrench the 89-year-old Bishop Bernardine Dong Guangqinq from his sickbed having him treated by a specialized medical équipe who, having been duped, ordained the new bishop of Kunming from his wheelchair!
In the Wuhu case too, the Patriotic Association put pressure on the candidate and the local government to carry out a gesture disapproved by all Chinese Catholics, official and underground.
What actually appears evident is not the involvement of Chinese leadership in religious questions, but the fact that it gives a free hand for an anti-Holy See policy to intermediate officials of the Patriotic Association and the Religious Affairs Bureau , without contrasting them. For years now, the central government's policy vis-à-vis the Church has been at the mercy of the Patriotic Association.
In 1999, just as rumours were circulating of rapprochement between China and the Holy See, the Patriotic Association planned for January 6, 2000, the ordination of 12 new bishops. Seven of them subsequently refused the nomination, having come to know that there was no approval from the Holy See; the remaining 5 were isolated and tricked into accepting their ordination. The ceremony, held in Beijing at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral early in the morning, was attended by only a few patriotic bishops, including Fu Tieshan, Archbishop of Beijing, and Liu Yuanren, Archbishop of Nanking, who are not reconciled with the Vatican. Invited priests, lay faithful and other bishops remained absent. Even the seminarians of Beijing's national seminary deserted the ceremony. In a letter to their rector, they expressed their displeasure with the ordinations taking place without Vatican approval. The illicit ordinations of 2000 served to dampen the timid attempts at dialogue spoken of in 1999.
The show of strength of past weeks is again motivated by the attempt to destroy rapprochement between Beijing and the Holy See. In case of diplomatic relations, both the government and the Vatican want to do without the Patriotic Association. In many regions, tensions that exist between officials of the Patriotic Association and Catholics, underground and official, are such that they are jeopardizing the policy of a "harmonious society" and being close to the people that Hu Jintao is pursuing. The idea is advancing, on the part of the Vatican and the official and underground Church, of accepting that communities and bishops register with the governmental Religious Affairs Bureau, without however adhering to the Patriotic Association, which is working for a national Church independent of Rome.
Various analysts have justified China's move as a "counter-move" to the nomination last February as cardinal of Joseph Zen. Cardinal Zen is very well-known for being a champion of Church freedom and a defender of human rights in China and in Hong Kong. The fact is that Chinese "counter-moves" date much further back and all bear the Patriotic Association's mark. They date back precisely to the attempts at dialogue between China and the Vatican initiated towards the end of John Paul II's pontificate, when Chinese government figures "promised" that they would send bishops to the Synod and invited Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity to establish a presence in China: these were important signs of a thaw. But soon after, around July and August, the Patriotic Association launched a campaign to keep priests and bishops of the official Church in line, reminding them of obedience to the Patriotic Association and the "elective" methods without Holy See mandate for episcopal nominations. And while barring the way for the arrival to China of the Sisters of Mother Teresa who are still awaiting official permission and prohibiting the bishops invited by the Pope to travel to Rome for the Synod on the Eucharist, dozens of priests of the underground Church were being imprisoned, in what was something of a throwback to the heyday of Maoism.
In the midst of so much difficulties, the outcome of all this seems to be a strengthening of the unity of the Chinese Church. A witness to this is the prayer campaign launched by the underground bishops for priests of the official Church "so that they be strong and faithful to the pope" in the face of pressure from the Patriotic Association. The campaign, which counts the support of AsiaNews, has been welcomed and is being supported not only in China, but throughout the world.