[UPDATE 9/17: At 11: 51 AM, Beijing Time, Reuters confirmed that the ordination will take place on Friday. The story includes a comment from the Vice-chair of the Patriotic Association, and that's good enough for me to label the rumors confirmed. Publicly, at least, the question of whether or not Li received the Pope's approval is unresolved. How that revelation is handled will tell us much about the current state of relations between the Vatican and Beijing.]
[UPDATE 9/16: UCAN is also reporting this potential news. Their story is dated September 14, and includes many more details than mine, including the news that Fr. Li has received approval from the Chinese Catholic Bishop's Conference, and that the date of the 21st is "tentative" according to the diocesan Foreign Affairs office. As usual, very well-sourced reporting from UCAN, and worth reading.]
Several sources are indicating that Fr. Paul Li Shan, the 42-year-old priest elected to be Beijing’s new bishop, will be ordained on September 21. There has been no official announcement from the Beijing diocese or the Patriotic Association, but there are reports that priests have been called back to Beijing for a special event to be held on that date.
The timing, so soon after last week’s landmark ordination in Guiyang (with the blessing of the Pope and government authorities) suggests that the former was really a test-run for the latter. But why a test run?
Though I am speculating here, I think one reason was to test the public and media response to the ordination itself. There’s some history here. In 2005, foreign media reported that Joseph Xing’s ordination to be the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai had received the blessing of the Pope. In fact, the Papal blessing was the only reason that the foreign media bothered to cover the ordination at all. However, the overwhelming focus upon the Pope’s role in Xing’s ordination so irritated government officials that they actually began to deny the Papal role – despite the fact that they were quite aware of it. As one person close to the events said to me: “They really lost face with that one.”
So far, at least, there is no public acknowledgment as to whether or not Fr. Li has received the Pope’s blessing. Obviously, such a blessing is key to any Catholic ordination, but it is doubly important for this one because the Pope’s June 30 Letter to China’s Catholics explicitly demands that Chinese bishops make a public display of their relationship to Rome – if they have one. At the 2005 Shanghai ordination, Joseph Xing made no such acknowledgment during his ceremony – though news of the Pope’s blessing was widely disseminated before and after the ceremony. Li, in Beijing, is in a far more politically sensitive position than Xing (though Xing’s position was/is quite sensitive, indeed). In light of this, it would not surprise me at all if Li’s ordination proceeds much as Xing’s – without a public acknowledgment of the Pope’s approval during the ceremony. In fact, the few limited reports from Guiyang suggest that this was the state of things during last week’s ordination. The real question, then, is how and whether a public display of Li’s relationship to the Vatican will be announced. However it happens – and it must happen at some point – I this it will be accomplished in a far more low-key manner than the 2005 ordination in Shanghai, or even the relatively low-key ordination in Guiyang.