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Episcopal U-turn or official sleight of hand?

SHANGHAI (SE): The Catholic world in China was left wondering if it was seeing a dramatic episcopal U-turn or a bit of official sleight of hand from the government when a letter appeared on the blog of Shanghai’s caged bishop on June 12, announcing his regret at having resigned from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association at his ordination ceremony on 7 July 2012.

The posting in the name of Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who has spent four long years under house arrest in the Sheshan Seminary on the outskirts of the city, expresses remorse, saying, “For a certain time I have been deceived by others and made certain wrong words and deeds about the Patriotic Association.”

The letter also contains a long reflection on how what he did on his ordination day has undone the good work of his predecessor, the late Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian.

It says, “It undermined the excellent development of the Shanghai Catholic Church that Bishop Jin had built up.”

The letter of regret contains lengthy praise for the late bishop, describing him as teaching people to love both country and Church with respect for and in cooperation with the Patriotic Association.

It is almost exclusively built around this theme, concluding by saying, “The Church does not want to obtain any privileges and respect in the world, as long as it can realise its mission of evangelisation… in a way that is acceptable to the society and to this age.”

It then praises Bishop Jin for observing both the rules of the Church and remaining obedient to the state.

The posting is also self-critical, saying that he has been affected by a liberal attitude that has crept into the Church, which promotes criticism of the good work of others, even without adequate understanding.

The timing of the letter is significant, as it appeared just one week before several activities in Shanghai were scheduled to mark the centenary of the birth of Bishop Jin on June 20.

At least one group intends to hold an academic reflection on the significance of the late bishop’s work and the letter has effectively grabbed the stage from what was to be quite a different narrative.

At his ordination, Bishop Ma announced to thundering applause from a packed St. Ignatius Cathedral, “It is inconvenient for me to serve in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association anymore.”

The letter on his blog says that with hindsight, he now considers this to have been extremely unwise and that his conscience is unsettled.

But this was not his only sin. A bit of fancy footwork saw him deny the opportunity to the two illicit bishops concelebrating at the ordination Mass to lay hands on him.

The reaction was swift and severe. The new bishop was whisked off to house arrest, the seminary in the city closed, the freedom of sisters’ congregations restricted, a publishing house shut and money inexplicably disappeared from diocesan bank accounts.

At the end of last year, the cathedral just happened to be undergoing repairs and the diocese was denied the opportunity to celebrate the opening of the Holy Door of Mercy.

Although Bishop Ma has in recent years had some freedom, operating a Weibo micro-blog account on which he has some 50,000 followers, he has not been allowed to celebrate Mass publicly or present himself as a bishop at any occasion.

Whether the words of regret are truly his or not remains a matter of much discussion.People in China are cynical about public statements from officially disgraced people under censure, with a common saying being, “The government can even make a stone confess to its mistakes on television.”

The bishop’s Weibo account has been blocked since a few days prior to the posting, which has led to more cynicism, as he cannot be contacted or respond to questions.

The letter attributed to Bishop Ma confesses to having hurt those who selflessly cared for him, as well as damaging the work that Bishop Jin had done in building the Church in Shanghai.

It says in this sense the late bishop has been betrayed, as it was he who taught Bishop Ma to have great respect for the state.

The words attributed to the caged bishop read like an apology for the Patriotic Association. 

They say, “I have always maintained a strong affection for the Patriotic Association in Shanghai, derived from its constructive role and its contribution to the development of the Church.

“Personally I participated in the work of the Patriotic Association, on big and small matters. The Patriotic Association is not how many outsiders judge it to be and I believe most of the priests and faithful in Shanghai recognise and trust the Patriotic Association.” 

But the confessional tone hits its crescendo at the conclusion. “In the Easter Vigil hymn, we sing the Felix Culpa (Happy Fault). 

“This verse seems to encourage us today and give us hope. The encouragement is when we have sinned and fallen, we have to accept the punishment; the hope is we have learned a lesson, we have to start again from where we have fallen and begin a new life.”

Indeed, such words do represent a radical U-turn from the sharp aggression the mild-mannered bishop showed at his ordination and is a great let down for many Catholic people who have been strengthened by the heroism of his resistance to the pressure from the government.

Many Catholics harboured the hope that other bishops would follow his lead and resist what they see as a meddlesome bureaucracy working to manipulate Church affairs.

America Magazine reported that some of the wording in the letter is rather crude and not in the style of Bishop Ma, casting doubt on the real authorship of at least part of the work.

AsiaNews reported Catholics in Shanghai as saying, “It is a lie. The letter is not by the bishop.”

It also quoted a bishop in southern China as saying, “It is a pity that the Vatican is silent. In my view, the Holy See must reiterate that the article contains elements that are not compatible with the doctrine of the Church.”

The bishop’s comment reflects a widely held suspicion that government manipulation breeds, as confusion generates many unanswered questions, spreading the wonder across all parties with an interest in the matter.

He wonders how the Holy See can continue dialogue with a government which manipulates a bishop in this way.

“I hope that Ma Daqin’s conversion was not piloted by someone in the Vatican to promote an increasingly pointless dialogue,” the bishop was reported as saying.

The Vatican has downplayed the significance of the letter saying it will not comment until its real circumstances are clarified.

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