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Age not the only dilemma for China’s bishops

HONG KONG (UCAN): Who can take their place is becoming a circular dilemma for some of China’s ageing bishops.

While the general custom in the Church is for bishops to retire at 75, Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang, from Wenzhou, has found that stepping down is fraught with problems, even though he is already 90.

But he showed that even he considers himself to be past his use by date, as at Easter this year, he appointed an administrator to shoulder the burden of leadership in his diocese.

“At 90, it is increasingly hard for me to lead the diocese in evangelisation and management,” Bishop Zhu told his priests and people during the Chrism Mass on March 23.

“To facilitate the smooth and effective progress of Church affairs, I have decided to step back from leading from the front and appoint Father Ma Xianshi as my administrator,” he told the 800 or so people at the Mass.

Bishop Zhu’s difficulty is the result of a combination of Vatican appointments and government belligerence. The Vatican appointed Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin, from the unofficial Church community as his coadjutor, but the government refuses to recognise him as a bishop.

Bishop Shao has refused to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and as a result, is considered persona non grata by the local authorities.

“It would be best if Bishop Shao could come out and lead both the unofficial and open communities,” a person, who identified himself as Joseph, said.

“It is unlikely the two communities could be united in the current situation, even though Catholics on the two sides now have more interaction and less attacks on each other than a decade ago,” he explained.

But if Bishop Shao is to be installed as a government-recognised bishop of the official community, he must meet two requirements of the authorities—concelebrate Mass with an illicit bishop ordained without papal mandate and become a member of the Patriotic Association.

Both of these conditions run counter to the bishop’s conscience, as well as those of many people among the flock that he leads. He would risk being despised by his some 80,000-strong community, which is almost double the size of the official community.

The Vatican made the decision to appoint Bishop Zhu and Bishop Shao at the same time in 2007 in the hope of forging unity between the two communities. But the decision was not well received among the people at the time.

They questioned whether Bishop Shao, as the coadjutor, should obey Bishop Zhu if he asked him to do something which was against his conscience—such as joining the Patriotic Association, which Bishop Zhu did.

Wenzhou is not the only place where the Vatican has appointed separate bishops for the unofficial and official communities in the same diocese.

In Tianshui, northwestern Gansu, the Vatican appointed Father Bosco Zhao Jianzhang, a priest from the official community, as the coadjutor to Bishop John Baptist Wang Ruowang, from the unofficial community in 2011.

But then he became director of the Gansu chapter of the Patriotic Association in 2013.

“No one knows why (Father) Zhao has not been ordained to date, except for the fact that he was elected the director of the Patriotic Association,” Father Peter Peng Jiandao, a Church commentator in Hebei, wrote in 2014.

While Bishop Wang was secretly ordained in 2011, as of today, Bishop-elect Zhao is still waiting for Beijing’s approval for his ordination.

But local Catholics say that Father Zhao is wedged right between the devil and the deep blue sea. 

If he gets ordained clandestinely, he risks trouble with the authorities, and even if his ordination is approved, a portion of his congregation would not accept him, as this would be seen as a government appointment.

Tianshui diocese has 18 priests from the unofficial community and 12 from the official one. 

Its Catholic population is around 20,000, the majority of whom throw their hat in with the unofficial community.

The problem of succession for bishops is just one example of how complex the situation of the Church in China can be. It is a core issue that the Vatican is still waiting for Beijing to agree to in a memorandum related to bishops’ appointments.

Church sources in China have been saying since the Sino-Vatican talks in January that no agreement will be signed in the near future, as negotiation is a long process.

“Even how to describe the China Church is problematic, as it takes time to discuss if it should be called the China Catholic Church—that is heavy on a political meaning, or the Catholic Church in China that has a theological connotation,” one person reflected.

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