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Vatican breaks its silence on China

HONG KONG (SE): The Vatican has broken its silence on two much discussed topics amongst Catholics in China and in the international media; the convening of the Ninth Congress of Catholic Representatives, which was slated to take place in Beijing from December 26 to 29, and the presence of an illicitly ordained bishop at two ordinations, one in Chengdu and the other in Xichang on November 30 and December 2.

A press release from the Vatican on November 20 notes that it understands and shares the pain of the Church in China over the two ordinations, but will not comment, because the matter is still being studied, and withhold its judgement on the congress until it knows all the facts.

“The presence in the two above-mentioned episcopal ordinations of a bishop, whose canonical position is still being studied by the Apostolic See as a result of (his) illegitimate ordination, has created discomfort to the parties concerned and distress among Chinese Catholics. The Holy See understands and shares their pain,” the statement from the Vatican reads.

While it is widely believed that the illicitly ordained Bishop Paul Lei Shiyin gatecrashed the two ordinations on instructions from higher rungs on the government ladder, the Vatican says that it is holding off on making a judgement until it has all the facts, as the matter is still under study.

Bishop Lei also appears to be the unwanted spoke in the wheel in the ongoing talks between the Vatican and Beijing, as it is believed that China is seeking the regularisation of his position, together with seven others who were ordained without a papal mandate.

However, the Congress of Catholic Representatives is a more prickly matter. The last time the body met was in 2010 and the Holy See encouraged bishops to boycott the event.

A number of bishops on that occasion went into hiding or called in sick to avoid being dragged to Beijing, but others were forcibly taken by government officials.

Some, who knew they could not refuse, came of their own accord, but further tension was created when they refused to concelebrate Mass with illicitly ordained bishops.

In Hong Kong, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission staged a protest outside the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government of China, stressing that the three-day assembly violates Church principles and undermines the freedom of its normal operation.

The rally also called the pressure used on some people to attend a violation of their religious freedom.

The congress is always controversial. It proclaims itself to be the sovereign body that gives direction to the life of the Church in China, as it draws up plans of operation and elects office holders for the other two national administrative bodies, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China.

But the bishops’ conference is not recognised by the Holy See and, in his letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI says that the Patriotic Association is contrary to doctrine.

Pope Francis has reaffirmed this position.

But in its press release, the Holy See makes a far more nuanced statement about the congress and, by using the word understand, it appears to leave the decision about whether to attend or not up to individual bishops and the other Church officials on the invitation list.

This also gives the Vatican a bit of breathing space, as it can sit back and see whether the body makes any decisions that could be considered contrary to the exercise of religious freedom or doctrine.

However, the former bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, is less assured. In a letter posted on AsiaNews he called the presence of Bishop Lei at the two ordinations a slap in the face to the pope.

He seriously questions the sincerity of Beijing in its talks with the Vatican, saying that it is difficult to believe it has good will at the negotiating table when it allows, or even encourages a bishop who has been declared to have incurred self-excommunication to take part in an ordination.

However, Cardinal Zen questions why the big wonder of the Church prior to gatherings like the Congress of Catholic Representatives is what will happen, when what it should be asking is, “What should we do?”

He proposes that the presence of an illicitly ordained bishop on the altar should not be accepted meekly by other bishops.

He cites the example of Bishop Anthony Li Duan, who resisted attending the 2000 illicit ordinations that were carried out in protest against the choosing of October 1, the anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, as the date for the canonisation of the Chinese Martyrs.

Cardinal Zen points out that although Bishop Li was disciplined, he was never removed from his position.

But despite the disappointment of the people at the lack of quick results, the Vatican remains determined to push ahead with its talks with Beijing.

In its press release, it is informing the Chinese authorities that positive signals coming out of the congress will contribute to a calming of tensions among Catholics on the mainland and help them to trust in the process of the talks that are currently under way.

However, while the Vatican has broken its silence and said it is withholding judgement on both the congress and the gatecrashed ordinations, its infinite patience seems to be testing the temperament of its anxious flock in mainland China.

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