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Sticky politics around bishop’s funeral

WENZHOU (SE): While many more than the limited number the government was willing to allow to attend the funeral of the late Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang, from Wenzhou in Zhejiang province of China, turned up at the church on September 13 for his requiem Mass and at his home village of Ma Qiao for the burial of his ashes, the day was overshadowed by controversy over the absence of the new bishop of the diocese, Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin.

Although the local authorities said they would only issue 400 passes for the church, over 600 crowded into the building and the 3,000 limit on his funeral procession swelled to at least 5,000, AsiaNews reported.

Bishop Shao was the coadjutor of the diocese and, as such, automatically became the bishop on the death of his predecessor on September 7.

But unlike his late predecessor, Bishop Zhu, does not have recognition from the government and UCAN reported that he was officially taken on gardening leave by government representatives just prior to the former bishop’s death and was not allowed to return until September 14, when the funeral was well done and dusted.

Gardening leave refers to a person who has been fired from their job or made redundant and is told to absent themselves from the workplace during the period of notice, even though they remain on the payroll.

However, in the bishop’s case, his redundancy was only a temporary arrangement to tie the government over a sticky situation for reasons that have as yet to be made entirely clear.

The 53-year-old bishop was taken to northwestern China and a photograph posted on his WeChat account on September 7, the day that Bishop Zhu died, shows him with a lay friend at the Guide National Park in picturesque Qinghai province.

The caption on the photograph reads, “Taking leave in northwestern China to appreciate the greatness and beauty of God’s creation.”

Wenzhou diocese has long suffered from a deep split between the official and unofficial Church communities, and the gardening leave seems to have been designed to keep the unofficial clergy away from the funeral of Bishop Zhu, as it was extended to Father Paul Jiang Sunian, the chancellor of the unofficial community, and two of his confrères, Father John Kong Guocun and Father Joseph Lu Xiaozhou.

Local parishioners were reported by UCAN as saying that the images on the Internet were intended to sow discord between the two sides of the Church fence, as any type of reconciliation or bridge-building between them is the last thing that it wants to see happen.

The four were taken for their leave separately to Yunnan, Fijian and Hangzhou City in Zheijiang.

The Vatican had appointed Bishop Zhu as the ordinary of the diocese with government approval and, in an attempt to heal the rift with the unofficial community, had made one of its priests his coadjutor.

While both were alive, although little happened to heal the scar of division, things worked to an extent, with Bishop Zhu tending to the official community and Bishop Shao the unofficial.

Even at the funeral Mass of Bishop Zhu, Father Ma Xianshi acknowledged this ongoing division, saying, “Where bishops are, there is a Church. And a bishop is a sign of the communion of bishops.”

But he added that sadly, “Wenzhou diocese continues to suffer division despite successive bishops’ efforts and has yet to achieve full communion. We pray to God and seek the intercession of Bishop Zhu to build unity in the Church of Wenzhou.”

However, with Bishop Zhu’s death that matter has become complicated. As the coadjutor, Bishop Shao automatically becomes the bishop of the diocese, but local Catholics say that the government does not want him and many believe that it has its eyes on Father Ma for the top job, even though he is not popular among the people.

This creates a sticky situation in the midst of the Vatican negotiations over the appointment of bishops with Beijing, as it comes at a time when the bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, as well as the Vatican secretary of state, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, have been talking up progress in the talks.

UCAN also quoted a researcher into Chinese politics as commenting, “With China-Vatican negotiations on bishops’ appointments in progress, I think the action has been the subject of consultation and happened with Beijing’s approval.”

However, AsiaNews quoted one person in Wenzhou as saying, “If Bishop Shao surfaces to lead the whole diocese of Wenzhou, he has to overcome many problems, including the permission of the government, but the priests and the faithful in the open community welcome him.”

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