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Catholic congress ends with a bit of official pomp and cute diplomacy

HONG KONG (UCAN): The Ninth National Congress of Catholic Representatives was doused with a bit of official pomp when Yu Zhengsheng, the chairperson of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and a high ranking leader in the Communist Party, met with delegates in the plush surrounds of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing at its conclusion on December 29.

It also managed to avoid the contentious issue of previous years by skipping the closing Mass and replacing it with benediction, avoiding the problem of illicitly ordained bishops mingling at a concelebration at the same altar as those recognised by the Vatican.

Even though the closing ceremony and benediction were led by Bishop Zhan Silu, from Mindong, who has been ordained illicitly and was also reelected as the vice chairperson of the bishops’ conference, avoiding the concelebrated Mass could qualify as the type of friendly gesture that the Vatican had been looking for.

However, as with the two ordinations at the end of November and beginning of December, where things were allowed to run mostly according to Church principles, having an illicitly ordained bishop leading the proceedings showed the same sort of recalcitrant resistance to Vatican authority as the illicitly ordained Bishop Paul Lei Shiyin gatecrashing the ordination ceremonies as a reminder of who is in charge around the place.

Having benediction rather than a Mass also served to soften resistance that may have come from bishops who have dual approval from both the Vatican and the Chinese government, as in previous years some have been reluctant to be associated at the Eucharistic table with bishops who are not recognised by the Holy See.

Delegates to the congress, which is held every five to six years, come from right across China and range from officials of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, members of the laity and priests, right down to bishops.

At the recent congress, which was held from December 27 to 29, delegates numbered 365 and apart from reelecting officials of the Patriotic Association and the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, they discussed a work report tabled by the two government-sanctioned bodies.

Representing the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a top political advisory body that consists of delegates from various social sectors, including religion, Yu told the congress that the central committee of the Communist Party attaches great importance to religious work.

She reiterated the main points made by the president, Xi Jinping, in his speech at the National Conference of Religious Affairs in April last year, calling for a greater Sinicisation of religion, a relatively recently introduced term which vaguely means making what are regarded as foreign religions more Chinese.

But many Catholics reject the congress, considering it to be incompatible with Catholic doctrine, as it openly advocates an independent Church. In addition, they see it as little more than a rubber stamp for government plans.

“The congress is a kind of formality that cannot be avoided under the current situation. It was good that it was held in a low-key way,” Anthony Lam Sui-ki, a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, said.

“Replacing a concelebrated Mass with benediction is also a good thing. So we don’t need to be too critical of the congress itself,” he said.

However, Lam drew special attention to remarks made by Wang Zuo’an, the director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, who asked the Vatican to “take a more flexible and pragmatic attitude” during his talk on the first day of the congress.

“It shows that there is a big difference between China and the Holy See. China may not give up its authority over the Church easily,” Lam said.

A Chinese researcher, who asked not to be named, similarly pointed to a conspicuous December 29 news release on the State Administration of Religious Affairs website.

The statement about the congress stressed the word insist three times.

It begins with insisting on the principle of an independent Church and that the Congress of Representatives is the foundation of the China Church.

It then moves to insisting that the Church be run in a democratic way, as well as pushing for a Sinicised theology in connection with the future of the China Church.

Finally, it insists on the building up of a body of talented personnel as a way to sustainably develop the China Church.

Nonetheless, Lam observed there is likely to be a shakeup in Wang’s department in 2017, because the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection had sharply criticised its work in June last year.

On December 30, the website of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference gave a more detailed account of the work report delivered by Bishop Ma Yinglin, an illicitly ordained bishop from Kunming, on the first day of the congress.

Bishop Ma was re-elected as president of the bishops’ conference.

The work report presented at the congress by Bishop Ma said that since the last congress in 2010, the Church in China has ordained or installed bishops in 16 dioceses and has held programmes on management for bishops and diocesan administrators for six consecutive years.

It added that China now has 65 bishops, about 3,100 priests and 5,800 sisters with more than six million laypeople in over 6,000 churches and mission stations. It has nine major seminaries with 468 seminarians.

In addition, there are 619 patriotic organisations across China, with 561 of them established at district and county levels. There are also 259 Catholic social service organisations across China running 121 homes for the aged, eight hospitals, 99 clinics, 10 orphanages, 13 kindergartens and eight charity foundations.

More than 185 million yuan (about $209 million) has been donated to the needy through programmes for victims of natural disasters, people living with HIV/AIDS or Hansen’s Disease, uneducated children and lonely elderly people, to name a few.

These figures, however, only pertain to the official Church community.


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