01/08/2004, 00.00
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First Bishop Ordained In Decades With Graduate Degree

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/UCAN) -- A newly ordained bishop in northern China, holding a master's degree in canon law earned abroad, sees formation of seminarians, priests, nuns and laypeople as a top priority for his diocese.

Bishop Peter Feng Xinmao was ordained Jan. 6 as coadjutor bishop of Hengshui diocese in Hebei province. As coadjutor, he will automatically become head of the diocese upon the death or retirement of its bishop. Hengshui town as about 250 kilometers south of Beijing.

Bishop Feng is the first bishop ordained since 1980 -- when religion was revived in China -- to have obtained a graduate degree. He was appointed by Pope John Paul II and was approved by the government-recognized Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China.

The government had to accept the choice only after two years of discussions. In the end it gave up on any obstacle, since all priests in the diocese wanted the candidate. In the diocese there is no  Catholic Patriotic Association. However difficulties continued until the day of the ordination. The ceremony was planned in the morning, but because of some late resistance by officials it had to be postponed in the afternoon.

Retired Jesuit Bishop John Liu Dinghan of Cangzhou (Xianxian) was the ordaining prelate, with co-ordainers Bishop Stephen Yang Xiangtai of Handan and Bishop Li Liangui of Cangzhou. Handan and Cangzhou are also in Hebei.

About 1,500 people attended the ordination Mass, including four priests. Four laypersons from Austria, Belgium and the Philippines, with whom the new bishop became friends while studying in Belgium, also joined the Mass.

As the Hengshui diocese's cathedral can accommodate only 100 people, the Mass took place in a rented hall nearby.

Bishop Feng's main task is to upgrade education standards of both the minor seminary and the Religious women's congregation in the diocese. There are now 90 minor seminarians and 60 nuns, he said. The continuing formation of 26 young priests and of laypeople is also a top priority, he added.

The newly ordained bishop, age 39, obtained a master's degree in canon law in 1990 at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

He the first bishop ordained in China since 1980 to have studied abroad, though another has studied outside the mainland. Government-recognized Auxiliary Bishop Zhan Silu of Mindong sought a bachelor's degree in theology at Holy Spirit Seminary College in Hong Kong in 1998.

A Church-in-China watcher, who did not want to be named, told UCA News that more young bishops in China with higher educational qualifications are expected as laypeople are better educated in China's rapidly changing society.

Bishop Feng has been teaching English and philosophy at Hebei Catholic Seminary in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital, about 270 kilometers southwest of Beijing, as well as at the Hengshui diocese's minor seminary.

There are now 28 priests, 60 nuns and 26,000 Catholics in the diocese. It is regarded as a small diocese in Hebei province, where other dioceses typically have more than 100,000 Catholics.

According to Bishop Feng, the diocese is led by Bishop Chen Xilu of Hengshui. The 75-year-old bishop has been bedridden and in coma for two years because of a brain hemorrhage. Retired Bishop Peter Fan Wenxing of Hengshui resides at a small church, Bishop Feng added.


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