In a recent interview, Pope Francis expresed his hopes for the renewal of the accord due to expire in October. Since it came into force, six bishops ordained (two appointed previously) and six more have taken possession of their dioceses. But throughout China - despite the Agreement - at least 36 dioceses have no bishop.
Milan (AsiaNews) - Earlier this week Pope Francis spoke about the Provisional Agreement between China and the Holy See on the appointment of bishops, perhpas with one eye on the two-year deadline which is now approaching. In an interview with Reuters news agency the pontiff said: "It is going slowly, but (bishops, ed.) have been appointed. It is going slowly, as I say, 'Chinese style', because the Chinese have that sense of time that no one rushes them." 'They also have problems,' Francis added, 'because it is not the same situation in every region of the country. Because it also depends on the rulers, there are different ones. But the agreement is good and I hope that it can be renewed in October'.
This is not the first time Pope Francis has personally intervened in an interview on the Sino-Vatican Agreement. On 1 September 2021 in an interview with Spanish radio station COPE, answering another question on the subject he said: 'It is not easy to deal with China, but I am convinced that we must not give up on dialogue... One can be deceived in dialogue, one can make mistakes, but it is a way forward'. While on 11 April it was the Vatican Secretary of State, Card. Pietro Parolin, who declared in an interview with ACIstampa that he "hoped" that the renewal would present the possibility to "make clarifications or review some points" of the Agreement, the text of which remains secret.
In light of these statements, it is worthwhile taking stock of the situation regarding bishop appointments in China since the entry into force of this understanding on 22 October 2018. According to the name, the Agreement deals with the appointment of bishops and is said to leave the Holy Father the final word of agreement on the only candidate submitted by the Chinese authorities (the 'appointment' is never mentioned by the Chinese side). Since the content of the Agreement is kept secret, both civil and ecclesiastical authorities continue to behave as before.
Although the Agreement deals with episcopal appointments, in these almost four years there have only been six episcopal ordinations, despite the fact that there are about forty vacant sees, as we shall see below. However, of the six episcopal ordinations, the first two did not follow the Agreement procedure. Bishop Yao Shun of Jining, ordained on 16 August 2019 was approved by the Holy See in 2010. Bishop Xu Hongwei of Hanzhong, ordained the following 28 August, was approved by Rome in 2016.
The first two ordinations of bishops appointed according to the Agreement procedure, again with only one candidate, were celebrated in the winter of 2020,in short only after the first renewal, which took place in October 2020. They were Bishop Chen Tianhao of Qingdao on 23 November 2020 and Bishop Liu Genzhu of Linfen/Hongdong on 22 December.
Then followed the episcopal ordinations of Bishop Li Hui of Pingliang on 28 July 2021 and Bishop Cui Qingqi of Wuhan-Hankou on 8 September 2021. Thus, almost a year has passed since the last appointment.
The new climate has also fostered other kinds of contacts and cooperation between the Vatican and China, including six official recognitions in as many diocese. There were the installations of three underground bishops who became official, namely Bishop Peter Jin Lugang of Nanyang (on 30 January 2019, who, however, had been negotiating for years on how to make himself official without adhering to the principles of the Patriotic Association), Bishop Peter Lin Jiashan of Fuzhou (on 9 June 2020) and Bishop Paul Ma Cunguo of Shuozhou (on 9 July 2020).
The other three installations were of bishops already official and members of the Bishops' Conference and the Patriotic Association - the "official" bodies controlled by Beijing - who for various reasons had not yet officially taken possession of the diocese, as ordinary diocesan bishops: they were Msgr. Stephen Xu Hongwei bishop of Hanzhong on 18 January 2020 (after the retirement of the elderly Msgr. Louis Yu Runshen), Msgr. Peter Li Huiyuan bishop of Fenxiang on 22 June 2020 (the previous year he had been made official under a certain constraint) and Msgr. Jin Yangke bishop of Ningbo on 18 August 2020, who had been ordained bishop somewhat secretly not according to the official procedure in 2012 by the elderly bishop Hu Xiande.
In four years, therefore, six bishops have been ordained and six diocese taken over by other bishops. But how many vacant dioceses are there in China? When defining the number, one must take into account that the jurisdictions of the Catholic hierarchy prior to the advent of Mao's China do not correspond with those imposed by the Beijing government on the 'official' Catholic community.
According to the data of the Catholic Church in China, there are 147 ecclesiastical jurisdictions, that is 20 archdioceses, 96 dioceses (including Macao, Hong Kong, Baotou and Bameng), 29 apostolic prefectures and 2 ecclesiastical administrations (Harbin and Hulubei'er).
Officially, according to the Chinese authorities - who have incorporated several dioceses together but intend to establish new ones - there are 104 dioceses in China (excluding Macao and Hong Kong), redesigned according to the boundaries of the civil administration. Seven of these dioceses (Hainan in the province of the same name, Shaoguan in Guangdong, Xinyang in Henan, Jincheng and Xinzhou in Shanxi, Lishui in Zhejiang and Kangding in Sichuan) have, however, already been placed under the administration of other dioceses by the Beijing authorities, so the total number would be reduced to 97.
Even assuming to take this new ecclesial geography as a reference point for the Church in China today, the currently vacant sees are 36 (to which the 7 incorporated ones should be added). So overall, there are more than a third of Catholic communities without a bishop four years after the Agreement came into force. This is a detailed list of the 'official' vacant dioceses:
Tianjin in Tianjin Municipality;
Shijiazhuang, Xingtai and Zhangjakou in Hebei Province;
Jilin in Jilin Province;
Jinzhong-Yuci, Yuncheng and Datong in Shanxi Province;
Baotou and Chifeng in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region;
Tianshui in Gansu Province;
Xining in Qinghai Province;
Xinjiang in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region;
Chongqing in the municipality of Chongqing;
The diocese in the Tibet Autonomous Region;
Dali and Zhaotong in Yunnan Province;
Jiangxi in Jiangxi Province;
Puqi, Yichang, Jingzhou and Xiangfan in Hebei Province;
Kaifeng, Zhengzhou, Shangqiu, Luoyang, Zhumadian and Xinxiang in Henan Province;
Shanghai in the municipality of Shanghai;
Qingzhou, Yantai and Heze in Shandong Province;
Hangzhou, Taizhou and Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province;
Minbei in Fujian Province.