The year saw the passing of a number of individuals who defended the freedom of the Church, people like Mgr Luke Li Jinfeng and Fr Sun Zhenhua. It also saw Mgr Ma Daqin’s U-turn and his return to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and action to stop the demolition of a church in Wangcun. Above all, it was the year of 97 priestly ordinations in the official Church and a certain number in the underground community, a year of “difficulties and challenges” but also “opportunities and hope".
Beijing (AsiaNews) – In the recent past, at the end of each year, Chinacath.org selects the ten most newsworthy stories about the Church in China in that year, so that people in the country and abroad can learn about its life. In 2017, the Chinese Church once again experienced a year of difficulties and challenges, as well as opportunities and hope.
1. Mgr Thaddeus Ma Daqin’s return to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA): On 20 January 2017, the Shanghai CPCA and the Church Affairs Commission held a joint meeting, to let Thaddeus Ma Daqin re-join the CPCA. Prior to this, Ma Daqin complained on his blog that he had been tricked by outside forces into withdrawing from the CPCA after his episcopal ordination. Ma Daqin’s “U-turn” sparked renewed divisions in the diocese of Shanghai, which deeply upset many of the faithful. Perhaps Ma Daqin had his own difficulties to consider, perhaps he changed his mind following the change in the Vatican's policy towards China. Whatever the case, will Thaddeus Ma Daqin’s return to the CPCA give him his freedom back, or even allow him to regain the power to lead the diocese of Shanghai? This remains an open question that still deserves monitoring and patience.
2. The bishop of Wenzhou Mgr Peter Shao Zhumim’s abduction, again: On Wednesday, 12 April 2017, bishop Shao Zhumin was released after five days in police detention, but on 18 May he was taken into custody by the Religious Affairs Bureau. This is bad news for the Diocese of Wenzhou and the underground Church as a whole. The diocese of Wenzhou is the centre of the underground Church in China and Bishop Shao Zhumin could be the leading figure of the loyalist Church in the country today. The successive deaths of older loyalist leaders, and the small number of older underground bishops have left Shao Zhumin as the leader of the underground Church. Now the public is paying closer attention to his situation. This said, people still hope that he might become the defender of the faith and a model of loyalty.
3. Mgr Ma Daqin’s concelebration of Mass with unlawful bishop Zhan Silu: On 16 April 2017, in the diocese of Mindong, Mgr Thaddeus Ma Daqin concelebrated Easter Mass with unlawful bishop Vincent Zhan Silu. Reports about the event were removed shortly after they appeared on the WeChat profile of the diocese of Mindong, but they never disappeared from the hearts of the faithful and with the public paying close attention to it. When Ma Daqin was ordained bishop, he skilfully avoided the laying of the hands by unlawful bishop Zhan Silu and instead gave a hug. In principle, Ma Daqin thus avoided the suspicion of communion with the unlawful bishop. Yet, the Mass celebrated Ma Daqin together with Zhan Silu in Mindong appears to be how the authorities plan to undermine his loyalty. Ma Daqin might come back, but this will take a lot of time.
4. Protection of the Church of Wangcun by priests and worshippers in the Diocese of Changzhi: On 29 August 2017, a Catholic church in Wangcun was forcibly demolished, and priests and worshippers were beaten whilst trying to defend the Church building. This was undoubtedly the event that attracted the most attention following the forced removal of crosses from the churches of Wenzhou. Bishop Ding Lingbin of the Diocese of Changzhi strongly protested against such an act of violence and slammed the U-turn of the local government, calling on the faithful to unite to protect the legitimate rights of the Church and not to bow to the forces of evil. Bishop Ding urged the faithful to stick to the teaching of Christ about patience, sacrifice, tolerance, and non-violence. He explained that the incident was just like a test of their faith, noting that he hoped that Christians would be able to fulfil the mission the Lord entrusted to them through this trial and such suffering.
5. Conviction of Fr Fei Jisheng in Liaoning: Fr Fei Jisheng, a Catholic priest in the diocese of Liaoning, has been detained several times. He is at the centre of many controversies. Inspired by Protestants’ experience of evangelisation, in particular the notion of "apostolic classes", he has proposed them to the Catholic Church, drawing the attention of the authorities. On 5 September 2017, a court sentenced him to one year and six months in prison. Although Fr Fei Jisheng and his "apostolic classes" have been controversial within the Church, his enthusiasm for evangelisation has been praised by many Catholics. When the clergyman went on trial, many priests and believers stood in front of the courthouse as a token of their solidarity. For Fr Fei, this was a sign of great spiritual support and comfort.
6. The unexpected death of Fr Sun Zhenhua of Wenzhou: On 2 November 2017, Fr Sun Zhenhua of the Diocese of Wenzhou, died suddenly. Grief spread rapidly across the Chinese Church. Why did the death of an old priest spark such a reaction? Because he was known for a courageous act. At the inaugural ceremony of Bishop Zhu Weifang, he seized the "letter of approval from the Chinese Bishops’ Council" from the hands of the priest of the CPCA and openly questioned the Council’s authority. Despite a three-year prison sentence with a two-year suspension, for which he actually purged 83 days, Fr Sun Zhenhua bravely faced everything with the spirit of martyrdom. Therefore, although he was an ordinary priest, he was well known in the Chinese Catholic Church. His unexpected death drew wide attention from churches across China.
7. The official installation of Bishop Joseph Han Zhihai in the diocese of Lanzhou (Gansu): On 10 November 2017, the underground bishop of Lanzhou Mgr Han Zhixin was given a public installation ceremony, but some priests did not attend due to reservations about his status. Mgr Han Zhihai’s predecessor, Bishop Yang Libo, was famous in the underground Church for his loyalty. As Bishop Yang Libo’s successor, Mgr Han on several occasions refrained from mentioning in public Libo’s name, which is truly disconcerting. Although the underground Church is not the mainstay of the Catholic Church in China, the traces left by history should be recognised, especially by clergymen who ought to promote the communion of priests and understand those brothers who do not share their opinions. Only thus can they better show their heart and tolerance as pastors.
8. The installation of the coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Handan (Hebei), Mgr Joseph Sun Jigen: On 16 November 2017, the installation ceremony of the coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Handan, Mgr Sun Jigen, took place in the Catholic church in Shexian. Bishop Peter Feng Xinmou led the ceremony, Bishop Sun Jigen celebrated the liturgy, Bishop Francis An Shuxin attended the ceremony, and 55 priests concelebrated. This event was the result of the efforts of the local government and the diocese of Handan to maintain harmony since Mgr Sun Jigen was secretly ordained coadjutor bishop of the diocese on 21 June 2011. Although some priests did not attend the event, the clergy of the diocese of Handan seem to understand each other and maintain its unity, which is indeed a blessing and help from the Lord!
9. The death of Mgr Luke Li Jingfeng, bishop of Fengxiang (Shaanxi): On 17 November 2017, Bishop Li Jingfeng returned to the Lord. A bishop of unshakable loyalty, he was and is the pride of the Chinese Church. He was the first loyal bishop to be ordained in the 1980s. Not only was he praised by people in China, but he was also highly respected by the Holy See. In October 2005, he was invited by Pope Benedict XVI to attend – along with three other prelates – the Synod on the Eucharist. Although the visit never materialised, this invitation shows how much prestige he enjoyed in the eyes of the pope. Bishop Li Jingfeng’s death symbolises the end of an era. Very few clergymen are left with the courage to fight for the faith, to sacrifice for the faith, and to have the holy virtue. This is the tragedy the Chinese Church faces today.
10. Christmas ban in many Chinese schools: In recent years, as Christmas approaches, some Boxer-styled patriots strenuously oppose Christmas holidays, arguing that it is a "western celebration". This irrational attitude actually goes against the principle of "freedom of religious belief" enshrined in the country’s constitution. Chinese citizens are free to profess the religion of their choice. Why should they not be free to celebrate Christmas? Schools should teach students to broaden their horizons and learn about the world’s various cultures; yet some of them do everything to limit students’ freedom and thus ban Christmas celebrations. This is not only an act of extreme nationalism, but also violates human rights, and must be strongly condemned.
Looking at the ten most newsworthy stories in the life of the Chinese Church in 2017, we can clearly see that Catholicism still has a long way to go in China. The policy of sinicising religions pursued by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping deserves careful thought and consideration. The most gratifying thing is that in 2017, 97 new priests were ordained in the official Church as were some in the underground Church – this is a joyous event, rarely seen in the past few years. One can only hope that the Lord will continue to help the Chinese Church meet its various challenges, promote its mission of evangelisation, and enable it to enjoy true peace.
Fr Peter Peng
10 January 2018