CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 23 February 2019

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Chinese bishop meets with pope

HONG KONG (UCAN): Pope Francis met with Bishop Joseph Xu Honggen from mainland China during a public audience at St. Peter’s Square on October 5 in the first public meeting between a pope and a bishop resident in China since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Photographs published by L’Osservatore Romano show the bishop kissing the pope’s ring, chatting with him one-on-one and the two waving to the camera and the crowds together. 

Then Bishop Xu appears to gesture towards his group and invite the pope to come with him for a photo-op.

The pope is also seen blessing a religious item which the bishop is holding.

The meeting prompted a mixed reception among both the official and unofficial Church communities in China due to ongoing talks between the Vatican and Beijing that have been somewhat divisive among Catholics in the Middle Kingdom.

The bishop of Suzhou in Jiangsu province, who has approval from the Vatican and Beijing, came to meet with the pope with a group of Chinese people.

Father Han Qingping said in a blog posted on Faith Press that the public meeting was important, because of the accord that is perceived to be growing between the Vatican and Beijing.

“Such a meeting may not be news for priests and laypeople in Europe and America or even in Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan. But for the China Church, which has gone through several decades of winters, it is undoubtedly a sign of the spring blossom,” Father Han said.

He called the specially arranged meeting a first. “How could it not draw our special attention?” he commented.

However, Vatican Radio’s Chinese service did not carry the news, even though it ran a story about Pope Francis greeting a group from Wenzhou at the Vatican in May 2015.

Father John, a priest from the official community in northern China, believes that the meeting was an intended gesture.

“Vatican officials might want to show the event was just a coincidence. But it is known that meeting the pope, even in a public audience, needs pre-arrangement,” he explained.

“The greeting perhaps is to show the China-Vatican negotiations are smooth and relations are good,” he surmised.

Another priest from eastern China, who belongs to the unofficial community, disagreed.

“The pope has fallen into a trap, as the meeting created the impression that he welcomed a bishop sent by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association,” he said.

In China, bishops who want to travel abroad have to obtain permission from the government. However, some have found ways around this.

The late Bishop John Baptist Wang Jin, from Yici, and Father Peter Shao Zhumin, now, according to Church law the rightful bishop of Wenzhou, as well as his chancellor, Father Jiang Sunian, have met with a pope in the past.

Bishop Wang, who was recognised by both Beijing and the Vatican, was received by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

But the Chinese authorities only learned about the meeting after he returned home.

Bishop Shao and Father Jiang, who belong to the unofficial community, were arrested in Shenzhen in September 2006 when they returned from Europe.

The two were charged with illegal exit. Bishop Shao was sentenced to nine months and Father Jiang was given 11 months in prison, because his was a repeated offence, due to a previous arrest for printing religious books.

The warm greeting given to an official bishop by Pope Francis is considered a blow to the unofficial community, as it feels as if it is enjoying little support from the Vatican.

The priest from eastern China described the meeting as being in sharp contrast with the manner in which the Vatican is currently treating Bishop Shao.

“There was an international campaign to call for his release, but the Vatican, as usual, made no public appeal,” the priest pointed out.

Bishop Shao has been denied the opportunity to take up his rightful role as bishop of Wenzhou, although he and his chancellor were brought home from their enforced trips around the country on October 8.

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