In May 2006, after several years of warming relations between the Vatican and Beijing, two Catholic bishops were illicitly ordained in Wuhu and Kunming. That is to say, they were ordained without the approval of the Pope, but with the approval of certain instruments of the Chinese government, including the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference. Five months later, in November 2006, a third illicit ordination took place in Xuzhou. To a certain extent, there was nothing newsworthy in these ordinations: the first illicit Chinese ordination took place in 1958, and – barring the devastating impact and interruption of the Cultural Revolution – they had occurred regularly into the 1990s.
But, on the other hand, the 2006 illicit ordinations were crucially different because they revealed the breakdown of an informal agreement between the Vatican and China’s religious authorities whereby lists of episcopal candidate were vetted by the Vatican and Beijing before receicing the Pope’s apostolic mandate. In 2005 and 2006 several bishops were ordained after being selected with this method, and some of those ordinations – most famously, Joseph Xing’s in Shanghai – received considerable attention outside of China.
In a May 2007 interview with the Vatican-affiliated magazine, 30 Days, Shanghai’s Bishop Jin Luxian acknowledged the hope that the ordination of Xing – and other ordinations like his – would be an important step in reconciling Shanghai’s and China’s underground and open church communities. It was and is a pressing issue: during the 1980s, in particular, several dioceses had underground and open church bishops (both of whom were valid by Canon Law), creating bitter divisions that had actually deepened with time. In practice, however, the informal compromise on bishops did not do much for reconciliation. In Shanghai, for example, the underground church still commands the loyalty of 15% of the city’s Catholics.
And so, in January 2007, Pope Benedict convened a Vatican conference on the Church in China, at the end of which it was announced that the Pope was writing a pastoral letter to the Catholics in China. The public received its first look at the text on June 30, following upon several media leaks that indicated – correctly, as it happened – that the letter would call for reconciliation between the underground and open church communities.
However, the actual process of reconciliation is much easier said (or written) than done (the most prominent and public argument within the Church over “how” has been covered at Shanghai Scrap). To be sure, there have been scattered reports of reconciliation within dioceses. But while important, none of those has the imprimatur of an official; the real test of the letter’s impact would have to be the nomination and ordination of a new bishop.
In April, six weeks before the release of the Pope’s letter, Bishop Fu Tieshan of Beijing died and many Church observers assumed that the selection and ordination of a succesor would provide the needed test case – for better or worse. And, so far, the Vatican has gone out of its way to make positive public comments about the character of Jospeh Li Shan, the 40-year-old priest elected to be Beijing’s new bishop. Though the Pope has not yet – publicly – signed off on Li, it seems highly unlikely that he would pull back his support after top deputies suggested that – was worthy of it.
In either case, while the rest of the world (well, the part of the world interested in Chinese Catholicism) has been focused on Beijing, something remarkable – and potentially historic – just happened in remote Guiyang in Guizhou Province. Out of sight of the media, rumors have been circulating for weeks that Fr. Paul Xiao Zejiang, the elected (in October 2006) and government-approved candidate for adjutor bishop (an assistant with automatic right of succession) had received the Pope’s blessing in advance of his ordination. I reported this news on September 4 – immediately following UCAN‘s (the Union of Catholic Asian News Agencies, a highly reliable and well-sourced service based in Hong Kong, with bureaus throughout Asia) report earlier in the day. However, what I did not know was that the source of the confirmed rumor was an actual Papal document circulating among the Catholics of Guiyang. According to a great piece of reporting by AsiaNews:
Weeks ahead of the ordination, Catholics had spread the word about the Vatican approval of the new bishop, so many faithful, bishops and priests from the underground Church, after having seen the papal document, congratulated the newly appointed bishop, and even decided to participate together with the official Church in the ordination ceremony.
The ordination occurred on September 8 in Guiyang’s Cathedral. According to UCAN and AsiaNews, members of the underground church were in the congregation, explicitly heeding the Papal letter’s call for reconciliation. According to AsiaNews and UCAN, Hu Daguo, the underground bishop of Shiqian – who, according to UCAN, lives at the government-registered Guiyang Cathedral (!) – planned to attend, but did not. The reasons for his absence are variously ascribed to the length of the three hour ceremony, ill-health, and the presence of the illicit bishop of Kunming. Regardless, according to UCAN, Hu has also recognized the new bishop.
Even without the presence of the underground bishop, this event is significant as the first ordination since the Pope’s letter. That the ordination took place with both government and Vatican support is critical in its own right. But, combined with the fact that there is a large backlog of dioceses (roughly forty, I am told) in need of bishops, and several approved candidates (by Beijing, at least) in the pipeline, the Guiyang ordination can and probably should be taken as a major shift in relations between the Vatican and Beijing.
Yet for reasons that escape me, the international media has almost nothing to say about the event. Important news outlets that devoted considerable coverage and analysis to the 2006 illicit ordinations and the Pope’s letter – including the New York Times, among many, many others – have totally ignored Guiyang. The AP has a story – largely sourced from the AsiaNews and UCAN reports – which has been printed in a handful of publications. But otherwise, only the BBC has run an original report on the ordination [and that story is filled with fact-errors, including the totally false claim that two bishops – unidentified – were excommunicated in the wake of their illicit 2006 ordinations).
Of course, given the choice between a good news story and bad news story, most reporters will chose the bad (including, admittedly, me). Likewise, it’s more fun to report the beginning of an argument than the complicated set of circumstances often necessary to end it. And then there’s the unfortunate tendency of many reporters to hold to assumptions and prejudices formed at the beginning of a story. Thus, in the case of the Chinese Church, most media outlets still insist upon referring to China’s “Patriotic Church” – despite the fact that there is no state-sponsored Church in China (a fact which the Pope’s letter explicitly recognizes). To be sure, there’s a Patriotic Association – but that’s a government agency with oversight over China’s Catholics and churches. It’s no Church. If a reporter – or a normal human being – clings to that terminology it becomes awfully hard to accept and understand the complicated concept of a Papally-approved ordination of a bishop elected by a Chinese congregation and approved by a government-chartered bishop’s conference that the Pope claims is “not Catholic.” But life is complicated, especially in China, and holding onto simplistic terms and concepts that have no relevance won’t help anyone understand anything. Guiyang, it seems, will be left to the historians.
[Jen Ambrose refers me to a wildly inaccurate Agence France-Presse story on the Guiyang ordination, reprinted in the Hong Kong Standard. No sources are cited – or, apparently, used – other than China Daily’s brief report on the ordination. Predictably, China Daily did not mention the Pope’s role in the ordination. Less predictably, the AFP reporter didn’t bother to look for other sources of information. Thus, the Hong Kong Standard’s headline is “New Vatican row looms as assistant bishop ordained,” and the story includes the preposterous claim that the ordination “could rile the Vatican.” Dismal.]