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Is the door of caged bishop ajar?

SHANGHAI (SE): What began as a study of the legacy of the late Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, from Shanghai, and scheduled to be held on the centennial anniversary of his birth on June 20, was first disrupted when a command performance in Beijing co-opted many of its delegates, and then by the political intrigue of whether the caged Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin would appear or not.

Measures to rehabilitate Bishop Ma, who has been under house arrest since he publicly quit the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association at his ordination in 2012, are rumoured to be underway and it was hoped that the first sign may have been his presence at the seminar on June 20.

When the postponed event eventually did take place on June 28, although Bishop Ma did not appear, his image was trotted out, courtesy of a video prerecorded by the organisers of the one-day seminar.

However, in the caption on the video, he was identified simply as Ma Daqin, without reference to his title of Bishop, and simply described as being from the Catholic diocese of Shanghai.

In the 10-second reflection on the legacy of Bishop Jin, Bishop Ma said the diplomatic things, noting that in the late bishop’s person could be found “love of country and love of Church, blended together successfully. I hope the spirit of Bishop Jin will pass on and stay with our generation.”

One delegate to the seminar described his short video clip as flying a kite.

The delegate was reported by UCAN as saying, “Although Bishop Ma could not attend in person, the video was an alternative way he could appear. They are testing the waters to see what the response is.”

However, a more revealing interview aired by Phoenix Television on July 1 came from the chairperson of the Patriotic Association, Bishop John Fang Xinyao.

Although critical of the caged bishop’s attitude to the current setup, Bishop Fang significantly referred to him as Bishop Ma, and so did the person conducting the interview.

This is an important statement from a person holding a government position to make on television about a confrère who has only been publicly referred to as Ma Daqin, without title, since he fell into government disgrace.

Bishop Fang told Phoenix Television that Bishop Ma needs to sharpen up on his ideas about the Patriotic Association and understand that it is the body that can make it possible for him to minister as a bishop.

He added that he should also be more sensitive to Chinese culture and pay more attention to the integration of the Church into the culture.

Bishop Fang pointed out that missionaries failed during the Yuan and Qing Dynasties, because they clashed with the culture by refusing to allow the people to worship their ancestors.

On the contrary, he noted that Father Matteo Ricci was successful, because he was sensitive to these issues and had respect for Confucian values.

In praise of the Patriotic Association, he said that it was set up to allow the Church to be part of the local society and give it a chance to develop.

“Now we have 65 bishops and over 3,000 priests in China. If we follow the practice of western countries, which cannot be agreed to by the Chinese government, then the Church in China would not have been developed in such a positive manner,” he told Phoenix Television.

But most controversially, Bishop Fang spoke strongly in support of self-nominated ordination for bishops (without reference to the pope), calling it a must for China and crediting it as being the basis of the recent development in the Church.

He said that in 1958 permission for the ordination of bishops was requested from the Vatican and it was refused, so the Church in China was left with no choice.

“If there is no bishop there is no Church. If the Church in China does not have the principle of self-ordination, it will be like the one in North Korea, which only has lay people and no clergy… Over 190 bishops have been ordained in China,” he stressed.

Although some have passed away, he said that there are still 65 bishops and, Bishop Fang highlighted, there are 5,000 to 6,000 sisters.

While a glance at Church history may give Bishop Fang a different perspective on the quandary he introduced, as priestless groups like the Hidden Church of Japan which preserved the faith for hundreds of years have survived, it was not Church life that he was talking, but simple politics.

However, the politics of titles may well indicate that Bishop Ma has at last set out down the difficult and winding road of rehabilitation and the door of his cage may be just a little ajar.

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