04/08/2023, 15.15
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Bishop Shen Bin and Easter for Shanghai Catholics

by Gianni Criveller *

Reports from Shanghai after Beijing’s unilateral appointment indicate a tense climate. Whether wilfully or not, Bishop Shen plays a political role in a context in which the authorities rule every aspect of life in China. The very mystery we celebrate tells us, however, that suffering, opposition and even death are not the last word.

Milan (AsiaNews) - A few days after the installation of Bishop Shen Bin in Shanghai we still do not have all the facts to assess what happened. The Vatican has not said anything yet.

The installation of the bishop in the diocese with the most difficult situation in all of China is a real test of the agreement between Rome and Beijing.

The Holy See said that it was only informed of Shen Bin's transfer from Haimen to Shanghai only a few days before it occurred, and that it found out about the installation ceremony last Tuesday only from the media, adding that it had no comment to make at present. This is not enough to believe that the Vatican is satisfied.

If the Vatican had approved or was happy with the transfer, it would have said so. Instead, it seems that it wants to take time to assess the situation, or at least not make it worse.

We fear that this new episode is but more evidence that the agreement with China does not work as the Holy See would like. We say this with regret and reluctance because, we would really like the agreement to work. In fact, this is what the Holy Father wants and this is what Catholics loyal to him desire.

The content of the agreement between the Holy See and China is secret, which once again shows its limits. Does the agreement mention transfers? Certainly, it is part of Catholic practice for bishops to move from one diocese to another following papal appointment.

Therefore, if the agreement gives to the pope the power, at least formal, to appoint bishops, he should have been involved in the process of picking the bishop of Shanghai, not simply being informed about it.

Although not exactly the same, we had something similar last 26 November, when the Holy See protested for the first time the transfer of Bishop Pen Weizhao to an ecclesiastically unapproved diocese.

Shanghai has been a sede vacante for many years, since 2014, when “underground” Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang passed away. And this is not just any diocese; it is one of the oldest and most flourishing Catholic communities in China.

Christianity arrived here at the time of Matteo Ricci thanks to his best disciple and collaborator, Paul Xu Guangqi. Publicly led until 2013 by Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, Shanghai does not lack bishops already ordained with the title of auxiliaries. Starting with Thaddeus Ma Daqin, under house arrest since the very day of his consecration (7 July 2012), whose appointment had been agreed by the two parties.

What was not agreed was, however, Thaddeus Ma’s decision to dissociate himself from the Patriotic Association, which sparked the ire of the authorities. Also not agreed was the forced participation of the illegitimate bishop Zhan Silu in the consecration, which led many of God's people, including clergy and religious, to desert the ceremony.

The story of Bishop Thaddeus Ma has had other twists and turns, including a 'retraction' in 2016. The auxiliary bishop, however, subjected to political lessons, has never regained his freedom, and therefore it is not easy to evaluate the sincerity of his statements, including the few restrained words of welcome to the new Bishop Shen Bin and the invitation to obedience, written in his blog.

I think that the most important thing to understand now is what will happen to him. Perhaps the Holy See is waiting for just that. Some suggest that Thaddeus Ma could be reinstated as auxiliary bishop. But it is difficult to see how the political authorities will allow it, even if this could facilitate the acceptance by the Holy See of a not agreed transfer, and soften the bitterness experienced in the Vatican.

In Shanghai, however, there is also another bishop, Joseph Xing Wenzhi, who resigned and disappeared from public life in late 2011. Despite being an auxiliary, Bishop Joseph Xing was considered the designated successor of Bishop Aloysius Jin. He had not been ordained coadjutor because of the presence of Bishop Jin and Underground Bishop Joseph Fan.

Joseph Xing’s story has never been clarified. Having opposed the religious policy of the authorities, he is thought to have been the victim of actions designed to discredit him and force him to resign.

However, he was chosen for his spiritual and moral qualities which we believe have not failed, despite the unfortunate circumstance that led to his resignation. Certainly, it is not possible to imagine his return to the ecclesial scene, but his painful and difficult life deserves respect and rehabilitation.

Reports from Shanghai indicate a tense climate and widespread sorrow. Shanghai’s Catholicism is proud of its origins, and perhaps is unwilling to welcome bishops who are imposed “from outside”.

This, however, does not seem to be the only or even the most important reason, from what we have heard, Bishop Shen is not liked by the Catholic community of Shanghai. He heads the Council of Chinese Bishops, an illegitimate body from the Church’s point of view, imposed and easily manipulated by the authorities in charge of religious policy in China.

Bishop Shen is a man who, wilfully or not, plays a political role, as a member (along with 10 other Catholics) of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Assembly. He expresses himself on political issues and has publicly approved the policy of 'sinicisation' of religions imposed by China’s current leaders.

His qualities, political rather than ecclesial, make him able to relate to political authorities, especially at a time when the latter are increasingly invasive and pervasive in every aspect of the life of the Chinese people, violating the legitimate freedom of Catholic communities and the legitimate autonomy of Church bodies.

This week, when believers relive the Paschal Mystery, we feel united with the Catholics of Shanghai and China. Suffering, opposition and even death are not the last word in the life of Jesus and his disciples. Life, a gift of Jesus's resurrection, prevails. This is why believers persist in hoping, and in mirroring their own life in that of the Lord Jesus.

* PIME missionary and sinologist

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