A Pattern Emerges: Bishops for Yichang and Ningxia

Earlier this week the South China Morning Post reported that Fr. Joseph Gan Junqiu received government approval to be ordained as bishop of Guangzhou on December 3 (Papal approval was granted earlier this year). According to a very reliable UCAN report, no date has been fixed, but preparations are underway [My thoughts on the Guangzhou situation can be found here.].

More important, the UCAN report includes news that two additional Chinese ordinations are imminent: Francis Lu Shouwang will be ordained bishop of Yichang on November 30; and Father Joseph Li Jing is tentatively scheduled to be ordained the co-adjutor bishop of Ningxia on December 8.

Both of these ordinations will take place with the Papal mandate, as well as with the approval of the Chinese government. But I think it is worth pointing out that – in all cases (including Guangzhou) – the Papal mandate came first (Yichang and Ningxia received Papal mandates earlier this year); government approval only came recently. Of course, the ordinations can’t be held in a government-registered church without government approval. But the mere fact that the government approval follows the Papal approval provides some insight into the method of bishop selection currently being used in China. It is also, dear readers, evidence of increasing religious freedom.

A few additional observations.

With these three ordinations, we can now count five new Chinese bishops ordained since the Pope’s June 30 letter to China’s Catholics, and all with government and Papal approval. Currently, there is only one nomination outstanding (if I am wrong about this, please send a correction and I will print it) – in Hohot diocese. However, that is not to say that all is well. At the moment, forty of China’s dioceses lack bishops, while this year alone six open church bishops, and four “underground” bishops have died (and the Vatican is not allowing any new underground appointments). Vacancies outpace ordinations, and until there is a formalized system for bishop selection in China, that situation will likely persist.

On the bright side, these five new bishops join another handful ordained with joint approval in 2005 and 2006, resulting in a sub-caucus of roughly ten young bishops, all in their forties, and all who have been ordained with the explicit approval of the government and the Pope. Their influence will be felt for decades.

As I’ve said elsewhere, none of this should engender too much optimism. The contemporary history of Chinese Catholicism is filled with too many missed opportunities, sabotaged opportunities, and miscommunications to get ahead of the current reality. Take it bishop by bishop.

But pessimism isn’t warranted, either. After all, for the first time in the history of Chinese Catholicism, the country’s leading dioceses will be led by Chinese bishops trained in Chinese seminaries with the approval of Rome and the Chinese authorities (remember: China’s bishops were majority European until the early 1950s). This is an extraordinary accomplishment. Cooperation and dialog between the Vatican and Beijing has produced real results.

Finally, according to the UCAN report, Bishop John Liu Jingshan of Ningxia is insisting that the co-ordaining bishops at his co-adjutor’s ordination “must be bishops recognized by the Pope.” Even twelve months ago, such a demand – made publicly by a government-registered bishop- would have been unthinkable. But the Pope’s June 30 letter to China’s Catholics, as well as increased dialog and interaction between registered, open Catholics has not only made it possible – but it offers the very real hope that the push-back will result in Papally-recognized ordaining bishops. Let’s see where this goes.

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