Vatican City (AsiaNews) – The ‘Missionaries of Mercy’ that Pope Francis will send into the world to be the “living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon” might also travel to China. Here, they might absolve and legitimise unlawfully ordained and excommunicated bishops. Is this really possible?
When he launched the idea of the Missionaries of Mercy, the pontiff said right away that he would give them the mandate to forgive sins usually "reserved to the Holy See". The latter include the sin of consecrating “a bishop without a pontifical mandate” (Canon 1382).
The aim of reconciliation with excommunicated bishops might affect some Lefebvrian bishops as well as Chinese bishops who were elected in recent years without a papal mandate or participated voluntarily in unlawful episcopal ordinations.
The latter include: Ma Yinglin, the bishop of Kunming (Yunnan), chairman of the Council of Chinese bishops (the official name for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of China) ordained on 30 April 2006; Liu Xinhong, bishop of Wuhu (Anhui), ordained on 3 May 2006; Guo Jincai, bishop of Chengde (Hebei), ordained on 20 November 2010; Joseph Huang Bingzhang, bishop of Shantou (Guangdong), ordained on 14 July 2011; She Shiyin, bishop of Leshan (Sichuan), ordained 29 June 2011; Joseph Yue Fusheng of Harbin (Heilongjiang), ordained 6 July 2012; and Zhan Silu bishop of Mindong (Fujian), ordained in 2000, installed on 14 May 2006.
According to some sources, eight bishops are unlawfully ordained.
Immediately after the papal announcement, some observers of Chinese and Christian matters began to think about the possibility of fixing the situation with the Missionaries of Mercy. However, as things stand now, to reinstate an excommunicated bishop, the Holy See requires a letter to the pope in which he explains his situation, admits his personal responsibility, if any, and asks for forgiveness.
This simple approach has been especially used with bishops who have participated in unlawful ordinations (sometimes under police duress). Of course, pardon was also given because the bishop promised to avoid future opportunities of sinning, i.e. he would no longer participate in other unlawful ordinations. For some pastors, that was it. In the case of others, despite reinstatement, readmitted bishops eventually offended again by taking part in new unlawful episcopal ordinations.
After granting a pardon, the Holy See asks the bishops to make a public statement in which they ask for forgiveness in front of their congregations. This ways they set right the scandal they caused to the faith of ordinary believers.
Reinstating bishops who agreed to be ordained without papal mandate is more difficult. Some - especially those ordained in 2000 – were tricked by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which kept them in the dark and isolated. Others knowingly chose to be ordained without papal mandate, thinking they might “rectify” the situation later.
Speaking about some of them, Benedict XVI called them “opportunistic brothers” who chose the Party’s comforts and pampering (official car, new bishopric, money, bodyguards, etc.) over unity and the truth of the faith. In their case, the Holy See has been playing for time. Even though they sent a letter to the Vatican asking for reconciliation, the Vatican is still waiting to see their pastoral behaviour.
Meanwhile, believers, seminarians, and priests have to avoid in every way possible from taking part in liturgies led by excommunicated bishops. Sometimes, however, they are forced by the CPCA to attend. For seminarians, there is also the threat of expulsion from the seminary; whilst for priests, there is the possibility of being reduced into poverty.
Now, the Missionaries of Mercy might find an easier and more direct way out of the situation. Yet, for many Chinese Catholics, it all seems unlikely or very difficult.
First, since the Missionaries have universal authority, if they do not speak Chinese, or know specific situations, they might go to China and meet one of these bishops, and absolve him without knowing the true significance of their action. Even so, some Missionaries of Mercy, whose names have not yet been made public, are from China. Could they end up doing the same thing?
For some pardoned bishops, their excommunication revoked, re-joining their diocese without publicly stating their reconciliation might be a hard task to accomplish. Still, would it be possible? Would the CPCA not see such an action as Vatican meddling in China’s internal affairs? After all, the former still wants to build a Church that is “independent” from the pope.
Some Chinese priests point out that after the reconciliation, "the penitent must show his repentance by changing his life", whilst "staying away from opportunities of sinning”. However, such opportunities include membership in the CPCA, which, although it allows worship, runs the Church and its dioceses in accordance for its own purposes.
In his letter to Chinese Catholics, Benedict XVI said that the CPCA “is s incompatible with Catholic doctrine". As for Pope Francis, whose affection for China is well known, he said, “We must not forget that fundamental document for the Chinese problem which was the Letter to the Chinese written by Pope Benedict XVI. That Letter is still timely today.”
Unfortunately, in and outside of China, many believe that membership in the CPCA is the price one has to pay, a compulsory "sinicisation" for a "foreign" faith. Yet, for many Chinese Catholics, official and underground, such "sinicisation" poses a problem. For them, "If the duty of a bishop is to confirm the faith of the faithful and maintain the unity of the Church, such a choice can only create confusion and sow divisions".