A Bishop for Guangzhou – Finally.

This morning the South China Morning Post [subscriber only] reported that Father Joseph Gan Junqiu, the Vatican-approved candidate to become bishop of Guangzhou, has received Chinese government approval and will likely be ordained on December 3. This will be the third ordination of a Chinese bishop since the Pope’s June 30 letter to China’s Catholics – and it will be the third performed with the joint approval of the Pope and the government-supervised Chinese Catholic Bishop’s Conference. As the SCMP story notes, government approval for Father Gan’s appointment was delayed almost ten months (Papal approval was received in January 2007), causing more than a little apprehension in certain quarters.

Rumors abound for the delay, including believable reports that steely Father Gan and the government religious authorities have some very different ideas about who should and should not preside over his ordination. Among those not welcome (and this is repeated in the SCMP story) are/were any of the three bishops ordained illicitly (that is, without the pontifical mandate) in 2006. In early September, one of those bishops (Kunming), participated in the ordination of Guiyang’s papally-approved bishop – without much notice. But a few weeks later two of the illicit bishops participated in the ordination of Joseph Li Shan to be bishop of Beijing – and this caused no small amount of consternation inside and outside of China. If the rumor is true (SCMP repeats but does not confirm it), Father Gan is showing a degree of independence really unprecedented among the new generation of Chinese bishops.

[UPDATE: While I was writing this post, AsiaNews posted a story confirming the rumors about the presence of illicit bishops being the cause of the ordination’s delay. I say “confirmed” because – with all and much respect to SCMP – AsiaNews is highly credible on these matters.]

But in fact, apprehension over a new bishop of Guangzhou dates back much further than ten months. The remainder of this post will be a brief accounting of that apprehension. Some of the material is drawn from two interviews conducted in November 2006, but the majority comes from Angelo Lazzarotto’s “The Catholic Church in Post-Mao China” published by Hong Kong’s Holy Spirit Study Centre in 1982.

Here goes:

Before 1946, China’s Church was officially a missionary enterprise, and its dioceses were overseen by papally-appointed Vicars Apostolic. After 1946, and the establishment of a Chinese Catholic hierarchy, those vicars apostolic became bishops and archbishops. However, as late as 1951, the vast majority of those bishops remained European – and not Chinese. In the Guangzhou archdiocese (previously, the Guangzhou diocese, and the Guangdong diocese), French apostolic administrators and archbishops presided – uninterrupted – until December 1946, when the last of the Frenchman returned to Paris. Yet despite living in Paris, he didn’t relinquish his title. Four years passed, and the Vatican finally named a Chinese Apostolic Administrator to preside in his absence: Dominic Deng Yi-Ming.

Deng served in this capacity until his arrest and imprisonment in 1958. No government-appointed replacement was made during the 22 years that Deng was in prison, but when he was released in June 1980, the government announced that he no longer had responsibility for the diocese. In October 1980, a group of priests, sisters, and laity of the diocese were called to the cathedral for the purposes of electing a new bishop; according to Lazzarotto’s account, Deng was taken from the hospital (his post-incarceration health was poor) for the meeting, where he was elected/named as the Bishop of Guangzhou. Lazzarotto quotes a representative of the local Religious Affairs Bureau saying, in regard to the selection:

This problem does not concern us; it is a question internal to your church; you can decide it on your own.

Soon after, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Agostino Casoroli, visited Deng in Hong Kong, where the newly elected bishop was in the hospital. Of their meeting, Casoroli was quoted as saying:

One of the things which the Bishop of Canton [Guangzhou] is most concerned is the need to set right the confusion of those who continue to speak of the PACC [Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics – more commonly known as the Catholic Patriotic Association] as if it were ‘a Church.’ … [T]he Association is a structure made up of Catholics, and even of bishops and priests, but is not a Church.

In April of 1981, after his convalescence, Deng was allowed to travel to Rome, where he had a private audience with Pope John Paul II. A few days later, he made a courtesy visit to the Chinese embassy, and though the ambassador was absent, Deng was reported to have been received courteously. It is known that Deng met John Paul II once more, in early May, though I have not been able to obtain any kind of account of either of their two meetings; significantly, the second visit took place just a few days before the Pope was shot in an assassination attempt on May 13.

Three weeks later, on June 6, the Vatican announced that Deng had been “… promoted to the metropolitan See of Canton, of which he had till then been Apostolic Administrator …”

This was major news. In China, Deng was a government recognized bishop; in Rome, he was a papally-recognized archbishop. Problem was, the Chinese religious authorities had redrawn diocesan lines in the 1950s, and no longer recognized archbishops. And they certainly didn’t recognize Deng.

According to someone close to these events, the confusion surrounding the assassination attempt caused the relevant Roman authorities to overlook these details. Whether that’s true or not, there’s no doubt that Beijing took deep offense. On June 11, a Chinese bishop issued an official statement on the appointment via Xinhua [the following translation is taken from Lazzarotto’s book]:

The Holy See has always adopted a hostile attitude toward the Chinese people; it has resorted to various kinds of means to subvert and sabotage the New China. To safeguard China’s independence, integrity, and sovereignty, and the purity of the Chinese Church, all our clergy and congregations have freed themselves from the control of the Holy See and now run their Church independently. This is in conformity with the traditional spirit of Jesus Christ in establishing the Church and of the apostles in propagating the Gospel.

On the topic of Deng, the statement read:

… without any sense of dignity, he went to Rome to receive the post of so-called archbishop. He also went to other places, to engage in activities harmful to the dignity of the Chinese clergy and Chinese people, violating the principle of independence of the Chinese Church. His behavior cannot be tolerated by the Chinese clergy and congregation.

Perhaps the most revealing part of the statement is the conclusion:

Gone are the days when the Holy See controlled the Chinese Church. Guided by the Holy Ghost, we will run the Church better along the road of independence.

I have written elsewhere about Chinese resentments against the French and other Europeans who maintained controlled over China’s Church into the early 1950s, so I will not repeat that history here. My only addition will be to note that those resentments were exacerbated by the officially anti-communist stance taken by many of the European bishops (and the Pope’s China envoy) during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Of course, there is much more happening in the above statement than colonial resentments (China’s officially atheist party wasn’t going to extend a whole lot of understanding to ANY religious disagreement), but understanding the backlash against Deng really requires understanding the historic basis for the anger. Much of it was sincere and real.

Over the next week, following the June 11 statement, Deng’s appointment was condemned in Chinese newspapers, nationwide. And finally on June 22, a group of seventy Guangzhou priests and Catholic laity voted to “dismiss” Deng. In the eyes of the government, he was no longer bishop. In his defense, Deng pointed out that the Pope’s appointment was merely an administrative measure: he had been apostolic administrator of an archdiocese, and it was only a matter of course that he should be given the appointment of archbishop, and not bishop. Right or wrong, among China Church watchers, it is now widely acknowledged that Deng and the Vatican underestimated the Chinese sensitivities involved in appointing him without some kind of face-saving consultation with Beijing. And those sensitivities are expressed most clearly in an official statement handed down by the three leading government-approved Church structures on July 18, 1981. Again, the translation is from Lazzarotto:

Rome has always made slight of the Chinese people, openly planning to overthrow New China. Before the liberation, the Chinese Church had long been kept in a colonial state … [A]fter liberation, the Vatican still continues to to stubbornly pursue its policy against New China.

On July 24, in an act that was characterized by one Chinese bishop as a “counter-blow to the Vatican, which has ignored the sovereignty of the Chinese Church and illegally appointed Deng Yiming as archbishop of Guangdong Province,” five new Chinese bishops were ordained illicitly in Beijing. Together, these two events – the dismissal of Deng and the five ordinations – played an important role in deepening the developing rift between the underground and open churches in China. A rift, I should add, that is only beginning to be healed.

Deng spent the remainder of his life in exile, becoming a mild proponent of the underground church. He died in 1995, and is buried near San Francisco.

In 1981, Ye Yinyun was elected as Deng’s replacement – without papal approval. And in 1990, after Ye’s death, Li Bingliang was elected his successor – again, without the papal mandate. He served until his death in May 2001.

Next month, when Father Joseph Gan is ordained in Guangzhou, these 26-year-old events will be on the minds of many in that cathedral. Some may look back and say that Gan is the first bishop since 1948; others, the first since 1981; and others, 1995. Whatever the length of time, in the context of what happened to Dominic Deng, the ten month delay between Gan’s appointment and his ordination doesn’t seem so long at all. And yet, at the same time, I can’t help but wonder whether or not that ten month delay might, too, have something to do with the existence of an archdiocese as opposed to a diocese. For those watching this closely, it will be mighty interesting to see what title the Vatican’s press office assigns to Father Gan on ordination day.

[I want to repeat that the above account relies upon my own sources, but especially translations and accounts from Angelo Lazzarotto’s “The Catholic Church in Post-Mao China.”]


  1. Adam: I was recently in Guangzhou, and met Bishop Gan, who was very gracious to us. I am surprised that he is not listed on Catholic-Hierarchy.org at http://www.catholic-hierarchy.org/diocese/dcant.html. Is there some issue with his ordination or approval by Rome? I would be surprised since he seems to be personally in union with Holy Father Benedict. Do you have any insight into the status of his episcopacy?


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