Sixty years of China’s “independent” Church celebrated with 48 bishops (photos-videos)
by Peter Zhao

The first episcopal ordination without papal mandate is celebrated with meeting and a seminar. The original event split the Chinese Church. For Wang Zuoan, deputy chief of the United Front, the principles of independence and self-management will not be eliminated "at any time and under any circumstances". Noting that more than half of China’s 98 dioceses have no bishop and in others prelates are very old, Mgr Ma Yinglin called for “politically reliable" bishops.

Nanjing (AsiaNews) – The 60th anniversary of the first episcopal ordination without papal mandate establishing an independent and self-managed Church was marked yesterday by celebrations, smiles, pictures, and a seminar.

The event, planned months ago, brought together 48 bishops, more than 100 priests and over 200 nuns in Nanjing. Thus, one of the most painful and tragic moments in the history of the Church in China was remembered in an apparently joyous and pleasant atmosphere.

Some historical background

The ordination without a pontifical mandate on 13 April 1958 of Fr Bernardino Dong Guangqing (1917-2007) was the first of a series that led to the division of the Catholic Church in China between the "patriotic" Church and the "underground" Church.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), both branches of the Church equally endured persecution. “Patriotic" and "underground" bishops found themselves side by side in prisons and forced labour camps.

The division re-emerged under Deng Xiaoping, who resurrected the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), forcing believers to face the dilemma of choosing between a Church that was "independent" (from the Holy See) and one that was "faithful" to the Vatican.

Little by little, however, the merciful work of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, together with the desire for communion of many official bishops, led to almost total communion of all the bishops.

However, in 2000, 2006 and 2010-2011, the CPCA created new "independent" bishops, who were united with the pope only after Pope Francis lifted their excommunication last September.

Forever "independent" Church

The Sino-Vatican agreement, which in theory acknowledges the pope as head of the Chinese Church, because he will have "the last word on episcopal appointments", does not seem to have put a dent in the government's aim of an "independent Church".

Yesterday, Wang Zuoan, deputy chief of the United Front and former director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, once again stressed that the principles of independence and self-management will not be eliminated "at any time and under any circumstances".

In the past Wang Zuoan also threatened to renew unlawful episcopal ordinations, which have not occurred, at least so far.

At the meeting in Nanjing, Mgr Ma Yinglin, one of the seven bishops brought into the fold by Pope Francis, raised the issue.

Mgr Ma, who chairs the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China (not recognised by the Holy See because it does not include underground bishops), said that out of 98 dioceses in the country, almost half are vacant and several others have very old bishops who must be replaced.

At the same time, China's Catholic community urgently needs to select bishops who are politically reliable and with good ethics and religious knowledge, Ma is cited as saying by the Global Times. Thus, no one seems to have criticised or amended the notion of "independent Church".

Insiders also told the newspaper that “religious issues are no longer an ‘obstacle’ for the two sides to establish diplomatic relations.”