Even among the 67 officially recognised by the Beijing authorities, a dozen are under close surveillance, 13 'underground' held in custody or restricted in their ministry. But in today's confused climate there are also about 15 Chinese priests who have proclaimed themselves bishops, defying both the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities.
Milan (AsiaNews) - On the Day of Prayer for the Church in China, to Our Lady Help of Christians who is venerated at the Sheshan shrine in Shanghai, Pope Francis yesterday addressed a special thought to "those who suffer, pastors and faithful", inviting them to raise their invocation to God "so that the Good News of Christ crucified and risen may be proclaimed in its fullness, beauty and freedom" in China.
Reflecting on these words, one might think that on this day of prayer Our Lady's eyes were particularly drawn to the situation of the bishops in China, which is of increasing concern in human terms.
There are currently 67 official bishops: a small number if we consider that one third of the dioceses still remain vacant despite the Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic signed in 2018 and renewed for the second time last October.
Even among the bishops also recognised as such by the People's Republic of China, it appears that at least a dozen are supervised or manipulated by the civil authorities.
Then there are another 13 unofficial bishops (therefore belonging to underground communities, commonly referred to as clandestine) who are kept under guard and whose activities are very restricted.
Another four non-official bishops are in even more precarious special situations: these include Bishop James Su Zhimin, the bishop of Baoding, of whom there has been no news for several years, to the point that some say he died in prison. Lastly, eight other bishops defined as 'irregular' must be added to the count: these can carry out their ministry as simple priests (although one, a centenarian, is probably deceased).
Adding to the confusion and suffering, however, are some other situations of a different kind. For example, a video recently circulated via Wechat, even in Hong Kong, showing seven priests in a private setting, one with a mitre and crosier, a second with Mass vestments and all wearing cassocks, stoles and an episcopal skullcap on their heads: they claim to be bishops but are to all intents and purposes 'illegitimate bishops'.
The initiative seems to have been taken by Paul Wang Huiyao of Zhouzhi and Zhang Tongli attached to the diocese of Shanghai, who are excommunicated. While Zhang Tongli's episcopal ordination was never recognised by the Holy See because it was obtained by fraud, the Rev Wang Huiyao belonged to the number of 'irregular bishops', who could only act as priests.
Their performance of episcopal acts required the intervention of the Holy See, which dismissed them from the clerical state in 2021. It seems, however, that they continued to operate as bishops, with an autonomous decision and as a challenge to both civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Some think that the video is a recording of a recent episcopal ordination. But in fact, rumours and photos of private episcopal ordinations by the aforementioned Zhang Tongli and Wang Huiyao had been circulating since 2021, so much so that the Holy See had to intervene.
In addition to this, Dong Guanhua, of Zhengding, who claimed in 2016 that he was ordained a bishop in 2005, had also previously ordained other new bishops. His bishop suspended him a divinis, a suspension confirmed by the Holy See.
Recently, some other priests have proclaimed themselves bishops, resulting in a list of about fifteen names of 'illegitimate bishops': this phenomenon is encouraged by the general situation of confusion and ambiguity in the Church. The civil authorities are concerned about this, because a similar phenomenon is also recorded within other religious denominations.
May Our Lady, Help of Christians, turn Her compassionate gaze upon such a situation and strengthen the trust in Jesus of Chinese priests and faithful.
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