Renewing the Sino-Vatican Agreement and the case of Tianjin
by Giorgio Bernardelli

The Vatican delegation and Chinese authorities met in a city with no official bishop since 2005. Archbishop Celli was able to meet 92-year-old underground Bishop Melchior Shi Hongzhen. Meanwhile, a report to the National Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives puts the number of Catholic churches in the country at 4,202 with 110,000 new baptisms in the last six years.

Milan (AsiaNews) – A year after the latest episcopal ordination in China, Bishop Cui Qingqi  of Wuhan-Hankou on 8 September 2021, a Vatican delegation led by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli met with Chinese authorities in Tianjin, Vatican Secretary of State Card Pietro Parolin announced in an interview with an Italian TV network.

The trip, which took place in late August and early September, was centred on the renewal of the two-year provisional agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China regarding the appointment of bishops, signed in 2018 and renewed on 22 October 2020, and therefore close to its expiry date.

Since Pope Francis publicly expressed hope that the agreement would be renewed and announced the positive outcome of the visit of the Vatican delegation, one can easily conclude that the Agreement was effectively renewed even though an official announcement will likely be made on a day closer to its formal expiry.

Indeed, a crucial date is approaching for China, 16 October, and the opening of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China. It is unthinkable that the agreement with the Vatican could still be under discussion so close to a date that will define the regime’s internal balance of power and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s place in it.

Back in April, in an interview with CNA, Card Parolin said that he “hoped" that the renewal would provide an opportunity “to make clarifications or review some points” of the Agreement.

Thus, this raises a question. Was the visit by the Vatican delegation to Tianjin an opportunity to achieve results in this regard? Since the content of the original agreement is still a secret, it is hard to answer. Things will become clear if and when new appointments are made.

Yet, as noted by Hong Kong Catholic blogger Lucia Cheung, there is also an internal Chinese element that rules out major changes in the agreement’s renewal. Earlier this year, Wang Zuo'an, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, resigned, replaced by Cui Maohu, a party official without a background in the religious bureaucracy.

In view of this, discussions on substantive aspects would require more time, probably until next year. But this did not happen.

Significantly, in Tianjin, a metropolis in northern China, the Vatican delegation visited 92-year-old Bishop Melchior Shi of Hongzhen, head of the “underground” community, who, with the approval of the Holy See, was ordained as a coadjutor by his predecessor, Mgr Stephen Li Side, who passed away in 2019.

Although Tianjin has been without an “official” bishop since 2005, Mgr Shi Honghzen has never been recognised by Chinese authorities because of his refusal to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) and has been under house arrest for quite some time. During their meeting with the elderly prelate, the Vatican delegation was able to give him a pectoral cross on behalf of the pope.

The great Diocese of Tianjin remains a significant test for the agreement on episcopal appointment. Although the meeting appears to be a sign of openness towards the elderly prelate, the issue of a new bishop is still unclear.

As Lucia Cheung notes in her blog, the Vatican had already picked a local priest, Fr Yang Wangwan, as Mgr Shi Honghzen’s successor before 2018. But his name does not appear among the delegates sent by the Diocese of Tianjin to the 10th National Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, held in August in Wuhan. Thus, it is very hard to imagine that he could be officially recognised as the head of the Church in Tianjin.

As AsiaNews noted with respect to the Wuhan Assembly, the documents of the “official” Church do not refer to any agreement with the Holy See on episcopal appointment.

Recently,, the official website of state-controlled Catholic organisations, published a report presented in Wuhan by Bishop Joseph Shen Bin of Haimen (Jiangtsu province), who was elected to head the Council of Chinese Bishops, an organisation not recognised by the Holy See along with the CPCA.

According to the report, the process of episcopal appointments over the past six years, that is since the previous Assembly, was completely autonomous, led by the CPCA. It also provides some interesting data on the Church in China today.

Overall, the country is divided into 98 dioceses, has 4,202 churches, and another 2,238 “active sites”. Some 66 bishops took part in the meeting, notes Bishop Shen Bin, thus confirming that at least a third of the dioceses are without a bishop.

In the last six years, 289 new priests were ordained, 161 new sisters made their profession of faith, and almost 110,000 baptisms took place, he adds.

Also noteworthy are some other references to pastoral activities. In the past six years, 550,000 copies of the Bible were printed with more than 100,000 handed out for free in the poorest regions.

Bishop Shen Bin also mentions initiatives carried out in various churches across the country during the Year of the Family and the Year of Saint Joseph, two initiatives promoted by Pope Francis for the universal Church but also celebrated in mainland China.

Last but not least, with respect to the charity work by Chinese Catholic communities, he explains that "according to partial statistics”, churches in China have offered material aid to the needy worth at least 173 million yuan (US$ 25 million).