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Clandestine bishop out from shadows

LANZHOU (AsiaNews): Bishop Joseph Han Zhihai, who was ordained clandestinely as a bishop in Lanzhou in 2003, has come out of the shadows to be installed by the government as bishop of Lanzhou in northern China.
However, he had told the Vatican Insider in 2015, “It is best not to ask for government recognition,” but added the rider that in his case the government had been prepared to offer recognition back in 2010.
He put his name on the map at the time of his ordination as a bishop when he wrote a letter saying that the two factions in the Church should work towards ending their divide.
The letter travelled far and wide and was read out at a symposium held on the Church in China in Belgium.
In all events, Bishop Han was installed by the government under the authority of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association as the bishop of Lanzhou in the Sacred Heart Cathedral on November 10.
AsiaNews reported that during the ceremony a letter of approval from the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China was read out in the presence of representatives from the United Work Front Department and the State Administration for Religious Affairs, as well as several bishops, some 50 or so priests and 350 people.
Bishop Han then promised that he would be a faithful and patriotic bishop in the official, government recognised community of the Church in China.
However, local Catholics in Lanzhou tell a slightly different story from that given to the Vatican Insider two years ago.
They told AsiaNews that in 2010 Bishop Han had visited the then power broker in the Patriotic Association, Liu Bainian, to ask for recognition, but had been told he needed to be further monitored before that could happen.
The local people noted that after his chat with Liu, he remained distant from the unofficial communities, as he had long accepted the principle of supervision of the Church by the Patriotic Association and the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
They said that there is evidence of this as it was published on the diocesan website in a notice about appointments for priests, although it was taken down shortly afterwards.
In June 2016, Bishop Han was one of 30 others who attended a seminar organised by the State Administration for Religious Affairs in Beijing at which the main speakers were from the government.
The bottom line was the strengthening of the principles of an independent Church and independent episcopal appointments and ordinations.
Although at this point Bishop Han has not become an official member of the Patriotic Association, he has allowed his two vicars general to join up, as well as become part of the provincial section of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
In 2010 and 2016, he participated along with some of the priests from his diocese in the Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, the organisation that stands above the Patriotic Association and the bishops’ conference.
In June this year, Sister Han, who is both his secretary and a relative, attended the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Patriotic Association and met Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo.
However, local people are more understanding than critical.
One told AsiaNews, “I do not mean to scorn Bishop Han, only to point out that his case is like a microcosm of what is happening in the Chinese Church today.”
He added, “Looking at how his episcopal ministry developed in a remote northeastern diocese and his ability to look at the signs of the times, I can only say that he is a smart steward.”
Saying that this shows it is not easy to be a bishop in China today, he said it also explains why the unofficial community bishops are treated differently by the government, as some can travel wherever they want, while others are detained or held under house arrest, with yet others severely limited in who they can talk to and what they can do.
Bishop Han’s line of thinking is backed up by Bishop Joseph Shen Bin, from Haimen. He told the Vatican Insider in October this year that if the Church opposed the government and all its requests, he wonders if there would be a visible face to the Church in China today.
Although he put a bit of gloss on some of his statements to the Rome-based news portal, he said, “The gospel does not ask us to assume the role of antagonists of the constituted authorities. Jesus just says to be as smart as snakes and simple as doves.”
Bishop Shen added that he believes that in China today reconciliation is the most important thing and if the current dialogue between the Holy See and Beijing produces nothing other than unity between the official and unofficial communities it will have achieved much.
However, not everything was smooth sailing at the installation Mass of Bishop Han. It was presided over by Bishop John Baptist Yang Xiaoting, from Yan’an.
Bishop Han Jide, from Pingliang; and Father Zhao Jianzhang, the apostolic administrator of Tianshui, concelebrated at the Mass.
All bishops present have Holy See approval, but Father Zhao, who was appointed by the Holy See as a coadjutor bishop in Tianshui in 2011, has not received the go ahead from the government.
Some 50 priests from the local and neighbouring dioceses attended the ceremony, as did some 350 people with a few sisters among them.
But disapproval in significant quarters was expressed in that only 12 of the 38 priests in the diocese turned up and only two of the three female religious congregations sent representatives, even though officials from the State Administration for Religious Affairs had visited the diocese earlier and told them it would be a command performance, saying that since the Vatican had been consulted, there would not be a problem.
Bishop Han was born in 1966. He was ordained a priest in 1994 and became vicar general to Bishop Yang Libai. He adminstered the diocese after Bishop Yang died in 1998.

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