02/06/2017, 17.53
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Church in China: the ten most important news stories of 2016

by Padre Pietro (伯铎神父)

During the Year of the Monkey that just ended, China-Vatican relations were the top news in China and around the world. Many prophesied immediate agreements, but no positive sign materialise, except for the warmer tone in some statements. Media failed to report the death of six bishops loyal to the pope, many of whom endured years of prison and camps because of their faith. A priest offers his thoughts on his blog.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – A Chinese priest, who is an active blogger, compiled for AsiaNews the ten most important news stories of 2016 (or the Year of the monkey, which ended on 28 January, with the start of the Year of the Rooster).

One of the interesting aspects he emphasises is the fact that the first news of the year (highly covered in China and around the world) was the illegal self-ordination by an underground priest, Fr Dong Guanhua, whilst the death of six loyalist bishops – some not recognised by the government who spent many years in camps – got very little media coverage*.

Another curious fact is the great focus on China-Vatican talks and on possibly imminent agreements. Yet so far no result has been forthcoming. On the contrary, the outgoing leaders of the government-controlled Bishops' Council and Patriotic Association have been re-confirmed, with no new signal to the Holy See.

We chose the ten most important news about the Church in China in 2016. What is surprising is that Fr Dong Guanhua, a hitherto unknown priest, suddenly fell from the sky and illegally consecrated himself bishop. This became the first of the ten most important news of the year. Regrettably, the death of six loyalist elderly bishops did not attract any attention. People also became more interested in the Ninth Congress of Chinese Catholic Representatives held at the end of the year. The main item on its agenda was picking new leaders for the Yi Hui Yi Tuan (Council of Bishops and the Patriotic Association). However, there were no changes because the same people were re-elected. The positive sign the Holy See hoped to see did not materialise.

1. Chinese dioceses solemnly opened the Door of Mercy welcoming the Jubilee Year of Mercy

Pope Francis proclaimed a ‘Jubilee Year of Mercy’ from 8 December 2015 to 20 November 2016. Several dioceses in mainland China celebrated the opening of the Door of Mercy in a solemn fashion, showing their loyalty to the pope of Rome. At the same time, they taught in depth about the mercy of the Father so that the faithful could learn to open their hearts, understanding the spirit of mercy of God the Father to bear witness before the world and to all people in need of mercy.

2. “Underground" Church leaders took a position in favour of an agreement with the Holy See

Since his inauguration, Pope Francis has often expressed his goodwill towards China, which resulted in a joint working group involved in secret talks. This has comforted a lot the Church in China. Mgrs Wei Jingyi and Han Zhihai and others, who are underground bishops, cannot wait to give an interview to express directly their desire to see an agreement between China and the Holy See as soon as possible. Some underground priests in Wenzhou, Fuzhou, Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, etc. have expressed the same view. They too are not fully aware of the content of a possible agreement. Card Zen, who is in Hong Kong, expressed pessimism with respect to such an agreement between China and the Vatican.

3. Cross demolitions resume in Wenzhou, Christian clergymen detained

Since 2014, a campaign of demolition of Christian churches has been underway in various parts of Zhejiang Province, especially Wenzhou. The latter are deemed “illegal”. This has led to the demolition of crosses on churches. Some Catholic churches have endured the same fate. In 2016, this wave of demolitions slowed down, but several Christian clergymen were detained. Many Christians are still troubled and pessimistic about the future.

4. Pope Francis showed goodwill towards Chinese authorities on several occasions

Being pope is not only a religious thing, but is also apparently a political thing. To improve the relationship with the Chinese government, Pope Francis has continued to express his goodwill towards the Chinese authorities. He is a really good and deserving political player. Xi Jinping was elected president at about the same time that Francis was elected pope. One is the religious leader of the religion with the most members in the world. The other is the leader of the most populous country in the world. If the two leaders could establish normal relations of mutual trust, they could promote world peace by giving an invaluable contribution to international society. Obviously, the most important thing remains the communion between the Church in China and the universal Church, which can be realised in its fullness.

5. Relations between China and the Vatican are warming up as news swirled around about a possibly imminent signing of an agreement

Although an agreement between China and the Vatican has not been reached yet, the relationship between the two parties are getting warmer. Responding to questions from journalists, the spokesman of the Chinese government has been using a calmer tone, and repeatedly voiced "support for the principle of dialogue". This shows that "channels of contact and dialogue between the two sides are open and efficient." Secretary of State Card Parolin on several occasion has said that he is optimistic about the prospects of China-Vatican relations. However, Reuters, Vaticaninsider, and many other news agencies have overblown this, giving the impression that the agreement had already been reached, whereas Chinese Catholics do not know anything and cannot know the truth. For their part, Taiwanese authorities are panicking, afraid of losing their last diplomatic tie in Europe.

6. The pope publicly received a mainland Chinese bishop

During the General Audience of 5 October 2016 at the Vatican, Pope Francis received Mgr Xu Honggen, official bishop of the Diocese of Suzhou. This must be a first. Chinese bishops have met Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI several times, but in secret, not in public. Pope Francis received the Chinese bishop in public, and Mgr Xu had the courage to greet Pope Francis publicly bringing a gift, having pictures taken in public, sparking all sorts of thoughts. This should be considered a very positive sign. As a bishop, Mgr Xi is recognised by both the Chinese government and the Holy See. Pope Francis received him publicly, sparking the interest of many media agencies. This is a good sign and deserves appreciation.

7. Dong Guanhua, an underground priest, consecrated himself without papal mandate

On 22 May 2016, the feast of the Holy Trinity, Dong Guanhua, a priest in the diocese of Zhengding (Hebei), announced his episcopal consecration at Mass. Amid sounds of gongs and drums, he made public his status as bishop wearing the mitre and pastoral staff on 11 September. Soon after, the bishop of the diocese of Zhengding, Mgr Julius Jia Zhiguo released a statement announcing the excommunication latae sententiae of Dong and the consecrating bishop. Vaticaninsider reported the news first, and many other agencies gave it wide coverage. Dong admitted that he was not appointed by the pope. He said however that he continues to apply the extraordinary rules of self-Episcopal consecration that the Holy See granted to the Church in mainland China, because of its difficult condition. However, Pope Benedict XVI had revoked these prerogatives in his Letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007. Despite his high profile statement, saying that he was now a bishop, the question is: who consecrated him? This remains a mystery. Meanwhile, some people appear to be crawling to him to be consecrated "bishop" by him and boycott the China-Vatican agreement.

8. Tang Yuange was consecrated bishop of the diocese of Chengdu with the participation of an excommunicated bishop

On 30 November 2016, Mgr Tang Yuange was consecrated bishop of the diocese of Chengdu in Sichuan Province. During the ordination, Lei Shiyin, an illegitimate bishop under latae sententiae excommunication, took part in the ceremony. In view of the situation, many loyalist bishops and priests were deeply displeased. Despite the protest and dissatisfaction of local Catholics, the latter could not prevent the participation of the illegitimate bishop. What further disappointed and saddened them was Lei Shiyin’s reappearance during the consecration of Bishop Lei Jiapei as bishop of the Diocese of Xichang on 2 December. People loyal to the Catholic faith could only complain and express their distaste for "eating rice mixed with sand".

9. The Holy See issued a statement on the Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives and the consecrations in Chengdu and Xichang

On 20 December, the Vatican spokesman issued a statement regarding the presence of excommunicated bishop at the episcopal consecration in Chengdu and Xichang, and the Ninth Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives.

According to the press release, "The presence of a Bishop at these two episcopal ordinations, whose canonical position is still being examined by the Apostolic See following his illegitimate ordination, has caused unease for all concerned and has disturbed Chinese Catholics. The Holy See understands and shares their sorrow.”

Obviously, the Holy See expressed its sorrow and powerlessness over the participation of an illegitimate bishop in an Episcopal ordination. However, with respect to the Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, the Holy See seems to harbour some hope. The statement ended saying, "Regarding the Ninth Assembly, the Holy See will make a judgment based on proven facts. In the meantime, the Holy See is certain that all Catholics in China anxiously await positive signals, which will help them to place their trust in the dialogue between the civil authorities and the Holy See and to hope for a future of unity and harmony”.

10. The Ninth Assembly of Chinese Catholic representatives took place at the end of the year, during which a new leadership was chosen

The Ninth Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives was held in Beijing on 27-29 December 2016. New leaders were elected, but they are the same people as before. Ma Yinglin continues to be president of the Chinese Bishops' Conference. Fang Xingyao continues to be president of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Shen Bin took over the third most important office as a permanent member of the Yi Hui Yi Tuan. There are some new deputies. Whatever the case, Ma Yinglin and Fang Xingyao are the right men after many years of preparation by the Chinese government. So their guidance makes others feel more relaxed, at ease.

Going through the "top ten" news about the Church in China in 2016, we realise that relationship between China and the Vatican is still the point of interest of believers and the international media alike. Even the appearance of Dong Guanhua is tied to China-Vatican relations. The change in the Vatican's strategy towards China sparked wavering ideas and uncertainties among the faithful. It seems they are not able to see clearly the goal and direction of the Holy See. In the end, in what direction will the relationship between China and the Vatican go? This still calls upon us to reflect and wait.

2 February 2017


* AsiaNews has covered the death of some bishops.

Mindong Bishop Mgr Vincent Huang Shoucheng dies, 30 July 2016;

Funeral of Msgr. Huang Shoucheng tomorrow. Agreement with the local government on the ceremony and cremation, 1 August 2016;

Bishop Zhu Weifang of Wenzhou, the city of demolished crosses, has died, 7 September 2016;

Taizhou bishop dies, he had been recognised by the pope and Beijing, 26 September 2016.

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