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Bishop’s death sparks succession quandary

WENZHOU (AsiaNews): The death of Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang, from Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, on the morning of September 7 at the age of 90 has sparked a looming crisis in the continued leadership of the diocese.

The coadjutor bishop set to succeed him was reported to have been kidnapped by police a few days before Bishop Zhu’s death and was not allowed to return for his funeral.

Taking over the reins from his late predecessor seems to be problematic, as unlike Bishop Zhu, Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin is not recognised by the government and currently holds responsibility for leadership in the unofficial Church community.

A person from the unofficial Church said that anticipating the death of Bishop Zhu, Bishop Shao, along with his secretary from the unofficial community, Father Paul Jiang Sunian, together with another priest, was kidnapped by police and taken out of Zhejiang province to Yunnan on August 23.

Yet another priest from the unofficial community is being held in a hotel in Hangzhou, the capital city of the province.

Local parishioners believe that the bishop and the priests were taken away to prevent Bishop Shao from taking over the leadership of the diocese in a peaceful manner.

But one priest maintained that there is more to it than meets the eye and the real the reason is clear.

“The government does not want Bishop Shao to preside over the funeral of Bishop Zhu. Since it was known that the 90-year-old bishop was sick, they acted ahead of time. In addition, they have already indicated a priest of the official community to be head of the group of the official priests, perhaps because they want him to become bishop,” he said.

“But in that case it will be a cause of contention with the Vatican, which has already appointed Bishop Shao as bishop with right of succession,” he explained.

From the point of view of canon law, as the coadjutor, Bishop Shao automatically assumes the role of bishop of Wenzhou, but many foresee a host of problems for him.

People from the unofficial communities were banned from attending the funeral on September 13 and local police limited attendance to only 400, requiring people to apply for an admission pass to get into the church.

Because of the deep division between the official and unofficial Church communities in Wenzhou, the Vatican appointed Bishop Zhu as the ordinary and chose Bishop Shao, from the unofficial community, as his coadjutor, in an attempt to foster reconciliation.

This became a controversial move and received disapproval from both sides of the Church fence in China. The government reacted by frequently subjecting Bishop Shao and Father Jiang to arrest and periods of imprisonment.

Bishop Zhu spent the years 1955 to 1971 in the forced labour camps and then in 1982 he was imprisoned until 1988.

He made the move from the unofficial Church community to the official, government-registered Church in 2010 and was installed as the government-recognised bishop of Wenzhou.

During the campaign launched by the Zhejiang government to demolish crosses and Church buildings, the bishop launched a strong appeal to the authorities to stop the destruction and asked the universal Church to pray for the Church in China.

Bishop Zhu died of cancer. He was to be cremated and his ashes buried in the Church cemetery.

The diocese of Wenzhou has a history of strong division between the two communities of the one Church. It is estimated that there are about 100,000 members of the official communities and more than 50,000 in the unofficial.

There are about 70 priests, equally distributed between the two.

Reconciliation has been hampered by various personalities in both communities, but also by the government, which manipulates situations to maintain its control over both, dividing them as much as possible.

Despite this, there has been a series of attempts towards reconciliation. Two priests from the unofficial community of the diocese of Wenzhou, expressed their respect for the deceased bishop and described him as a man of faith, committed to evangelisation and attentive to mending relations between official and unofficial communities.

Bishop Zhu entered the minor seminary in Ningbo at the age of 13 and then studied in Jiaxing and Fuzhou seminaries. In 1951, he went to study in Shanghai, at Xujiahui seminary.

Ordained a priest on 6 October 1954, he was appointed to do pastoral work.

From 1955 to 1971, he was the victim of the Maoist campaigns against religious personnel and spent the time in a forced labour camp and was later imprisoned.

Ordained a bishop secretly, in 2010 he caused much controversy both in and outside of China by becoming the official bishop of the diocese.

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