CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Rumours amidst a shroud of silence

HONG KONG (SE): As silence from the government, local Church and the Vatican shrouds the controversial letter of apology posted on the blog of the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, the environment has become ripe for rumours.

On June 12, a letter was posted on the blog in the name of the caged Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin expressing regret for his former attitude towards the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and confessing to being affected by a liberal attitude that has crept into modern day thought, as well as being misled by others.

The bishop, who has been under house arrest since his ordination in 2012, has not been available for comment and nothing has been said by the local government or any Church authority.

The Vatican remained tight-lipped for almost two weeks, only saying that it would not comment until there is more clarity on the circumstances of the posting of the letter. It downplayed the importance of the issue.

But on June 22, the former bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, told AsiaNews, “Not saying anything is irresponsible.” He explained that he believes that the Vatican has a responsibility to protect the reputation of the Church.

Then on June 23, as rumours continued to spread that the Vatican may have been involved in the affair through its two recent clandestine meetings with representatives from Beijing, the Holy See press officer, Father Federico Lombardi, told the media that such speculation is inappropriate.

In a carefully crafted statement, he said, “No direct information is currently available,” adding that the unfolding saga is being followed with prayer and concern by Pope Francis, who remembers those involved in his daily prayer.

However, Catholics in China have expressed their concern over the continuing validity of the letter penned to the Catholic people of China in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, which categorically condemns the principles of independence and autonomy, self-management and democratic administration of the Church that are espoused by the Patriotic Association.

They say that these principles place the authority of the association above that of the bishops. This has prompted one elderly priest to ask if the former pope’s letter has been superseded or not.

AsiaNews quoted him as saying, “Has Pope Benedict XVI’s letter to Chinese Catholics been abolished? If so, by whom? With what authority—Pope Francis said that it is still valid.”

The priest goes on to say that he presumes the posting on Bishop Ma’s blog is a way to come to some kind of an agreement with the authorities, but by taking this route, there is a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as it subordinates the journey of faith to political wrangling.

However, a priest in northern China who has been under close government surveillance for some years, expressed compassion for Bishop Ma, saying he appreciates that he is willing to eat humble pie for the sake of his diocese.

“The Chinese government was beside itself after losing face to the bishop’s attitude four years ago. His contrition and praise for the Patriotic Association on his blog allow the government to retain a sense of honour, which could make the situation a lot easier,” AsiaNews quoted him as saying.

But in the long run, most rumours converge on one scenario. They agree that Bishop Ma will probably end up like Bishop Wu Qinqing, from Shaanxi, who was ordained without the permission of the Patriotic Association or the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China.

After 10 years of confinement, he was eventually installed as the government-recognised bishop after he agreed to concelebrate Mass with a bishop who was illicitly ordained.

The expectation is that Bishop Ma will be told to do the same thing. In fact he already did that at his ordination as a bishop, but with fleet of foot managed to cut them out of the real action in the ceremony by denying the opportunity to lay hands on him or offer a sign of peace.

The other point of convergence is the Ninth Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, a forum which fills the executive positions in the Patriotic Association and the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China.

There seems to be certainty that Bishop Ma will have to attend and that a Mass will take place in which he will be expected to concelebrate with illicitly ordained bishops.

But opinion divides on the Vatican silence.

A bishop from southern China told AsiaNews he believes that the silence of the Vatican reflects the failure of its negotiations with Beijing, because if Bishop Ma was forced to post such a letter without Vatican consent, then it becomes an act of persecution on behalf of the government.

The bishop says that he does not believe that Bishop Ma was supported by the Vatican in his resistance and he is now being forced to follow a road of false religious freedom.

At the same time, other commentators interpret the whole saga as a sign of hope that the dialogue between Vatican and Beijing diplomats is bearing fruit, as it removes some obstacles from the road of progress.

AsiaNews points out that Pope Francis has warned against reducing everything to individual cases, saying the Church should take to heart the harassed faces of its suffering servants.

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