The new bishop of Changzhi and the many voices on China-Vatican dialogue
by Bernardo Cervellera

The ordination will take place on November 10 in the Cathedral. The bishop had been appointed by the Holy See at least two years ago. But he was waiting for the green light from Beijing. Similar situation in Chengdu. Fears for the presence of excommunicated bishops. Reconciliation between illegitimate and official bishops is not brought about by political gestures, but depends on personal and canonical procedures. A meeting between the Chinese delegation and the Vatican is not "imminent".


Rome (AsiaNews) - On November 10, the diocese of Changzhi (Shanxi) will have a new bishop. Msgr. Peter Ding Lingbin will be ordained in the cathedral, dedicated to St. Peter and Paul.

The Diocese of Changzhi, with a population of 3.5 million inhabitants was founded in 1946. But the Church is present there since 1830 and was part of the Shansi Apostolic Vicariate, evangelized by the Franciscans. At present it has 51 priests, 22 seminarians, who serve more than 50 thousand faithful.

Priests and lay people are busy with preparations and are deeply relieved because place and date of the ceremony were only confirmed a few days ago. But the Vatican's appointment of Msgr. Ding came at least two years ago.

Some commentators have interpreted this vent as a “green light" to the agreements reached between Beijing and Rome on the appointment of bishops, a first fruit of Sino-Vatican dialogue, a sign of a deal reached on episcopal appointments. It’s true that the bishop, who had already appointed by the Holy See, has been waiting for the opportunity to be ordained and officially take possession of the diocese. The delay was due to the expectation of permission from Beijing.

The same thing can be said of the future bishop of Chengdu (Sichuan), Msgr. Joseph Tang Yuange. He, too, was appointed by the Holy See long ago and he too is waiting for the best conditions to be ordained. Although some media in China say that his ordination will be later this year, there has been no official confirmation of a time or a place. Other observers of the Church in China say the delay is due caution to prevent illegitimate and excommunicated bishops from taking part in the ceremony.

Since the day of his election Pope Francis has frequently signaled his esteem for the Chinese people and made overtures towards the President Xi Jinping. At the same time dialogue between Beijing and the Holy See resumed after almost a decade of silence. At present the delegations of the two parties meet with a certain periodicity (every three months) and they are primarily studying an agreement on the appointment of bishops. On his return from Azerbaijan a few weeks ago, while expressing optimism about this journey, the Pope himself said that the path is long and slow, "Things done slowly - he said – always turn out for the best. Things done in a rush rarely go well.” Despite Francis’ candid confession, various media in Italy, in China and around the world continue to scrutinize every step and listen to every rumor, concluding that "the agreement is imminent."

To confirm this "imminence" they point to the fact that "by the end of" the month of October there will be a meeting of the two delegations to finalize the last details of the agreement.

But AsiaNews sources in China and others close to the Vatican have denied that this meeting will take place in October stating that it wlill take place at a later date. The Holy See Press Office has not commented on this news, but on October 22 issued a dispatch stating that October 24 to 26 " the sixth meeting of the Working Group between the Holy See and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam will be held at the Vatican, in order to develop and deepen bilateral relations between the two Parties." It seems unlikely that there would be two working groups on two very sensitive issues more or less taking place during the same days.

Some optimists may conclude the Vatican purposely wanted to hold the working groups together, to seek help  from Vietnam (which accepted a non-resident nuncio) to solve its problems with China. But the fact remains that relations between Hanoi and Beijing are not at their best, thanks to divisions over the sovereignty of the islands in the South China Sea. In addition, the Communist Party Plenum started today in Beijing and all the high ranking officials are in China with their sights set on the decisions that will emerge.

In any case news reports on an "imminent" agreement are deeply upsetting for Christians who belong to the underground (unofficial) community who feel forgotten and put to one side in these dialogues. They fear that the Vatican, in a rush to achieve some results, is willing to compromises that pollute the Catholic faith.

One of these dreaded compromises is reconciliation with the eight illegitimate bishops (including three who have been officially excommunicated). Recent rumors claim that the Vatican is set to recognize four of them: Ma Yinglin of Kunming (Yunnan); Guo Jincai of Chengde (Hebei); Yue Fusheng of Harbin (Heilongjiang); Tu Shihua of Puqi (Hunan).

If it is true that China is pushing for the recognition of the eight bishops, it is also true that the Holy See continues to exact a real path of reconciliation and that implies a request for forgiveness from the excommunicated bishops, a judgment by the Pope, and a public gesture of apology from the bishop for having scandalized the faithful.

For the Holy See a similar process cannot come about by simply waving a magic wand. It requires each of the implicated bishops to follow a precise process and path. Some of these pastors presented their request for forgiveness years ago, but the Vatican has reserved the right to further investigate their situation. This means that it is unlikely that their reconciliation with the Pope will happen "later this year". In any case, this process bears no bonds to the ongoing China-Vatican dialogue, rather their own spiritual and human journey. In an article published last August 4 signed by Card. John Tong of Hong Kong, explaining the criteria and procedure of the ongoing dialogue between China and the Holy See, the Cardinal stated: " Currently in mainland China, there are still bishops not yet recognised by the pope who ought to fulfil the statutes of the Catholic Church for legitimate bishops so that they can subsequently be recognised by the pope as legitimate". In short, this recognition can only come about by "following the required conditions" and not as the result of a political deal.