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A disobedience of faith

HONG KONG (SE): A maverick priest from the unofficial Church community in Zhengding in Hebei, Father Paul Dong Guanhua (see page 12), claims that in engineering his own ordination as a bishop he is modelling himself on Bishop Joseph Fan Xueyan, the first bishop in China to ordain another clandestinely without a specific mandate from the Vatican (1981).

Although Father Dong, like his predecessor Bishop Fan, claims his motivation was to save the Church from further fracture, the situation of the two clergymen shows so vast a chasm between their respective circumstances and motivation as to have no parallel.

Not only did Bishop Fan suffer greatly for his fidelity to the faith and the Church, his disobedience of faith began a revolutionary movement that ensured the Catholic people had bishops, which was later to receive the unqualified blessing of Pope John Paul II.

Bishop Fan belonged to an almost totally dismantled Church that had emerged from the shadows of the Cultural Revolution in 1970s, when he and two other bishops, who had also survived the purges of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and its consequent suppression of religion, came up with a plan to bring some organisation to what was an almost hidden and exceedingly splintered Church.

They would ordain bishops without the specific permission from the Vatican on the basis that in times of religious persecution such an abnormal procedure could be sanctioned by canon law.

Bishop Anthony Zhou Weidao, from Fengxiang in Shaanxi, had already taken the initiative of secretly ordaining a successor for himself in 1980—56-year-old Father Lucas Li Jingfeng, but according to Chan Shun-hing, from the Baptist University of Hong Kong, he had somehow obtained a Vatican mandate (Changing Church-state Relations in Contemporary China: The Case of the Fengxiang Diocese—2012).

Bishop Zhou, together with Bishop Li heard that Bishop Fan had been released from prison and sought to meet with him. Together, the three began discussing the need for more bishops.

At first Bishop Zhou was hesitant, but finally the three agreed to go ahead and early in the following year Bishop Fan ordained Bishop Casimir Wang Milu (who it is claimed ordained Father Dong a bishop without any mandate), Bishop Julius Jia Ziguo (who has condemned the ordination) and Bishop Francis Xavier Zhou Fangji.

Tripod, a publication of the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, says in an article written by Father Giancarlo Politi in 2011 (winter), “A short note written in Latin explained the reasons behind their controversial decision.”

The bishops knew that they were isolated and that the Chinese regime could not be trusted to respect their freedom. Father Politi noted, “They were convinced that the Church without an authentic episcopal office could not last.”

He then explained, “This was the start of a movement unique in the history of the whole Church, at least for the dimension that it took. There were strong reasons for taking such a course of action, which ultimately only produced mixed results. The state found enough motives for trying to suppress it, fearing that it would eventually have to confront counterrevolutionary activities from the Catholic camp.”

Father Politi admits that the sequence of history is not altogether clear, but he quotes the current bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, as saying at a conference in 1988:

At that time, Bishop Zhou Weidou of Fengxiang diocese in Shaanxi province wrote to admonish him (Bishop Fan) about ordaining bishops without Vatican approval. Bishop Fan replied that in this extraordinary situation canon law grants such a faculty.

His reply eventually reached Rome, where the pope (John Paul II), after hearing Bishop Fan’s position, agreed with what Bishop Fan was doing.

The pope indicated privately that as long as grave reasons existed and the candidates’ qualifications were examined and proved satisfactory, the ordination was licit.

It was the beginning of an ongoing practice in the unofficial Church communities in China that was to see 43 bishops clandestinely ordained in the six years to 1987.

There were seven in 1981, 15 in 1982, five in 1983 and eight in 1984. In the next three years there were only eight altogether, but another 29 were to follow by 2003. Since then there have only been a few.

Father Politi noted that the years prior to 1980 had been a time of doctored and sparse information for Catholics in China.

For the bishops in prison, this had been magnified several times and after their release, things were not much better. There was no outside advice to call upon and they were all alone.

The Church in China had already seen bishops being ordained without a mandate from the Vatican, courtesy of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association that the government had set up in 1957 (later suspended by Mao Zedong, but subsequently resurrected).

The first two bishops ordained illicitly as self-elected and self-ordained came in 1958; Bishop Bernadine Dong Guangqing, from Wuhan, and his Franciscan colleague, Bishop Yuan Wenhua.

These were quickly followed by 13 others. Bishop Dong was the first, he was also the first to have his position regularised by Pope John Paul in 1984.

But after the Cultural Revolution, the Catholic community was shocked again when the Patriotic Association organised for Father Michael Fu Tieshan to be ordained as bishop of Beijing in 1979.

But the actions of Bishop Fan, Bishop Li and Bishop Zhou came out of a totally different motivation and circumstance.

As Father Politi puts it, “These former labour camp detainees considered themselves to have maintained a continuity with the authentic Church, a prerogative they were not prepared to concede to those who had crossed over to the (Communist) Party camp.”

Their disobedience of faith was an important step for the struggling Church in China and the three will remain in the hearts and history of Catholicism on the mainland, especially the late Bishop Fan, who was the first to have the courage to see that extraordinary need can demand an extraordinary response.

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