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Is Shanghai missing an auxiliary bishop?

By Father Huabei

Catholic circles in China are buzzing with rumours about auxiliary Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi of Shanghai, who has not been sighted since last month.

As in the days of Mao Zedong, appearances and non-appearances at events or in photos are always considered highly symbolic when seeking to interpret the rise or fall of an individual in the pecking order.

Fact is always hard to establish because no particular actor will confirm or deny the reason for appearances or disappearances, or rises in and fallings from favour.

What is indisputable is that Bishop Xing has been sidelined. The Shandong-born priest was picked as auxiliary to Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian in preference to all other Shanghai candidates. Once expected to succeed the 95-year-old Bishop Jin, he seems to have fallen from favour, perhaps for a short while; perhaps permanently.

His troubles began in December 2010 during Eighth National Congress of Catholic Representatives, or perhaps since he became a bishop. It is the case of the disappearing bishop in Shanghai. But rather than asking where he is, the real question is: “what does the disappearance mean?”

On 10 December 2011, he could have substituted for Bishop Jin at a priestly ordination when the latter was hospitalised with a fractured rib following a fall (Sunday Examiner, 25 December 2011). Instead, the ceremony was postponed.

Then Bishop Xing did not appear for Christmas Mass and in the week before Christmas, Bishop Jin appointed a priest in his 40s, Father Thaddeus Ma Daqin, as vicar general of the diocese.

The Eighth National Congress of Catholic Representatives was held against the wishes of the Vatican. The first pictures to emerge in official television news reports prominently featured the image of Bishop Xing. The authorities seemed to believe that as long as he was present, the congress was half way to being claimed as a success.

However, the success gained from the obedience of Bishop Xing to Bishop Jin’s request that he attend was countered by the absence of Bishop Joseph Li Liangui of Xianxian.

During the congress Xing was criticised for his three “nos”: He did not wear the bishop’s soutane, did not put on his zucchetto and did not show any supportive stance to the congress.

Even though he went to Beijing, his uncooperative attitude was seen as showing contempt for the coalition comprised of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, neither of which is recognised by the Vatican.

In fact, while Bishop Jin is honorary president of the coalition, contempt for it is normal in Shanghai.

The coalition has had a history of tension with the Shanghai diocese since the era of Anthony Liu Bainian, Beijing-based vice-chairman of the association from 1992 to 2009. Bishop Jin who leads Shanghai’s official community, once criticised Liu to his face: “The Church in China became chaotic because of you!”

Bishop Xing was picked to be auxiliary under these circumstances. Considered an upright son of Shandong, he shares the fear and dislike that officials of the patriotic coalition have of others in Shanghai.

On a working visit to Shanghai in October 2011, the vice-chairperson of the Patriotic Association, Liu Yuanlong, visited Bishop Jin. Shanghai’s religious officials welcomed the visit, but only local association staff appeared to receive him.

This was in strong contrast to similar visits in other provinces and cities. Moreover, a scene without clergy does not look good for the government-sanctioned official Church community.

It is not surprising that Bishop Xing was believed to be an unlikely candidate to succeed Bishop Jin. Three reasons are given for this: He is a headache for religious officials and the government dislikes him. It is said that he is stubborn and weak in interpersonal relationships. His temperament has been questioned by others and is apparently unsupportive of the harmony of the diocese.

But these reasons do not completely explain his sudden disappearance.

There is a parallel in the recent case of Bishop Li of Xianxian. After he was rumoured to have retired in mid-2011, gossip spread about a scandal involving him that looked likely to stir up disputes in the diocese. But all his priests united behind him and tension evaporated.

If Bishop Xing  has come under pressure, it will be a test of the character and strength of the Shanghai diocese. UCAN


Father Huabei is the pseudonym of a priest in northern China who used to live in Shanghai. 

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