Beijing (AsiaNews) - "A disaster for the diocese of Baoding" is how a 40 year old local priest, describes the Church's situation after the decision of Mgr. Francis An Shuxin to join the Patriotic Association (PA). "Now the diocese is divided and it is necessary that the highest authority of the Church speaks loudly and clearly to mend this division."
Last August, the priests of the diocese of Baoding (Hebei) became aware that their coadjutor bishop, Mgr. An, had become deputy director of the PA and chairman of the Committee on the affairs of the Church of Baoding. The prelate, 60, told his priests that he became part of these two bodies "for the good of the Church."
The choice of Msgr. An deviates from the decades-long resistance of the underground Catholics to join the PA, in the name of freedom of religion preached by the Chinese Constitution. It creates some doubt, since the Letter of Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics (in 2007) defines the PA and its ideal as "incompatible with Catholic doctrine."
From Hong Kong, Anthony Lam Sui-ki, of the Holy Spirit Study Center of the Diocese of Hong Kong, defines the case of Msgr. An as "very unfortunate". After his release in 2006, the bishop had decided to become a member of the official Church, but in order for him to be recognized as a bishop, the condition was imposed of his taking the leadership of both associations controlled by the government. But with these two positions, says Lam, the bishop was somehow "taken hostage".
"With the possession of these two titles - continues Lam - the bishop has been emptied of substance. He no longer has the space to help unite the official church and the underground communities of the diocese of Baoding”.
It is a "misfortune" that Msgr. An has entered the PA "even after the Pope, in his letter to the Chinese of 2007 clearly states its position towards the PA."
"The move by Msgr. An is neither welcomed by the Church nor the government. In the Church, he opposed the pope's teaching as expressed in the letter, from the standpoint of government, if by chance one day he wanted to retire from the PA, to defend Christian principles, he would only be seen as a 'traitor'” .
According to Anthony Lam, at present, the situation of Msgr. An seems worse than the time in which he lived as an underground Bishop. However, he thinks that this case is unique and is related only to the diocese of Baoding, and will not spread to other underground communities.
Kwun Ping-hung, an expert in relations between China and the Vatican based in Hong Kong, tells AsiaNews that Mgr. An is a very influential bishop in the country and that China and the Vatican wanted him to lead efforts towards reconciliation and unity of the official and underground church in Baoding.
Rereading An’s moves towards the official church, Kwun says that "without doubt the Vatican has acted too hastily and with too much optimism in understanding the situation of Baoding, while China had taken a very passive position." "Right after pushing him to join the official church - continues Kwun - the Vatican appointed him coadjutor bishop of Baoding, recognizing the value of Msgr. James Su Zhimin [now in prison] as the ordinary”.
But the bishop failed to have the government recognize his title of coadjutor bishop, and so China and the Vatican were somehow dragged into the matter".
"Since then - continues Kwun - Msgr. An has no longer been accepted by the underground Church and is locked in a situation that is neither official nor underground. "
According Kwun, Msgr. An embraced the PA mainly because of insufficient support from the Vatican. "This could have been the most important factor".
The adhesion of Bishop An to the PA "will not help - says Kwun - reconciliation between official and underground Catholics in Baoding and Hebei. "From this point of view - he concludes - the case has turned into a situation that neither China nor the Vatican would have liked."