Print Version    Email to Friend
Hope for continuing Sino-Vatican dialogue

by Anthony Lam Sui-ki
Recently, Sino-Vatican dialogue has again become a hot issue for media and for the public. Actually, as early as 1981, the late Pope St. John Paul II already expressed his desire for contact and dialogue. The Holy See, however, stresses that such contact and dialogue do not aim at the establishment of diplomatic relations. 
The ultimate concern of the Holy See is how to enhance the Catholic communities in China, unofficial or official, to help them live a normal religious life as well as to extend evangelisation work so that the gospel can reach more non-believers.
Diplomatic relations can be credited as a means by which the Holy See can achieve the above mentioned aims, but is not the aim itself. If some media suspect that the Vatican will sacrifice Catholic communities for diplomatic relations, it is because they are used to thinking in terms of secular power politics and neglect the characteristics of the Catholic Church.
It is still too early to discuss concrete diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Chinese government. What they may achieve is just a mutual understanding on the appointment of bishops. 
Changes since Pope Francis and Xi Jinping assumed leadership
On 13 March 2013, Pope Francis was elected Supreme Pontiff of the universal Church. On the following day, Xi Jinping was elected president of China. The interaction between the Vatican and China entered into a new stage.
Regarding the appointment of bishops in China, readers should not neglect that there have been no illicit consecrations of bishops during Xi Jinping’s term of office. It is an important sign of good will that we can appreciate.
Granted, during the last five years the consecration of legitimate bishops has been few and far between. In 2015 there was one. In 2016 there were four. In 2017 up to the present moment in 2018 there have been none.
The two sides at this moment may reach a fundamental agreement to solve the long-running problem of illegitimate consecrations. Such an agreement would ensure that future bishop candidates would not be unacceptable to either side. 
Under such circumstances, the Holy See might not be able to have the most desirable candidate, but at the same time there is a guarantee that it will not be forced to accept any undesirable person. This is not yet a perfect agreement, but at least it is an acceptable midway solution.
In fact, similar agreements exist between the Holy See and some countries in Europe. An Austrian professor who visited me in 2017 informed me that the Austrian government has veto power over the appointment of bishops, only it has not exercised that power since the end of World War Two.
The seven remaining illicit bishops should be dealt with
While future arrangements are being resolved, the last seven illicit bishops should be handled with great care. As far as I know, they submitted their requests for pardon to, and sought forgiveness from the Holy Father in 2015 or earlier.
Over the last 30 years, there have been at least 65 similar requests for pardon, amounting to almost two-thirds of the illicit ordinations. Sincere requests were usually pardoned by either Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI.
Whether the pardon is for forgiveness over the illicit ordination, or if the bishops will be allowed to carry out episcopal responsibilities, or if they will be given other new appointments, will be judged on a case-by-case basis. The following historical examples illustrate the range of options.
Archbishop Anthony Li Du’an of Xi’an, and Coadjutor Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai, were given episcopal appointments.
Bishop Zhang Mingxian from the Diocese of Yichang, Hubei, was not appointed to any special episcopal see.
Bishop Kong Linzhong from the Diocese Kunming, Yunnan, received pardon only of his illicit ordination. 
Nowadays, when Pope Francis, after carefully listening to all opinions—pros and cons, makes his final decision, we should respect and obey it.
The new situations of Shantou and Fu’an dioceses
In January 2018, many media outlets paid special attention to the term of office of Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou. It is a case worth studying. 
As far as I gathered from a source at the Holy See, the Vatican delegate did consult Bishop Zhuang regarding the arrangement of the episcopal see upon his retirement. 
According to Canon Law, the Holy Father enjoys full authority to appoint, or remove from office any bishop without the consensus of other people. That is why it is illogical to claim the Holy Father is forcing anybody to quit his episcopal see. 
If Bishop Zhuang felt upset regarding his retirement, we Catholics should help console him, but not try to force the Holy Father to change his decision.
Regarding the diocese of Fu’an, Bishop Joseph Guo Xijing, when interviewed by overseas journalists, claimed that he would obey any command from the Holy See, even though he did not have confidence that such measures would be function effectively. 
His example deserves our admiration and emulation. He reserves judgment, but at same time fully fulfills his promise of obedience to the Holy See.
Revelations of the canonisation of Archbishop Romero
In 2018, the universal Church is close to finishing the process of canonisation of Blessed Pope Paul VI and Blessed Archbishop Romero. The great celebration is on the way. While I am glad to witness the two being recognised as historical heroes, I cannot help but ruminate. 
Today, we witness the general acclaim for Archbishop Romero. But we should not forget that in 1977, when Pope Paul VI appointed the young and humble Father Romero as archbishop of San Salvador, Catholic social activists there and all over the world generally objected to his appointment, claiming that it was a sign of surrender by the Vatican to the right-wing dictatorship and powerful groups in Latin America. 
Now after 40 years, history has proved that Archbishop Romero was the best choice and brought El Salvador a totally new face.
Now, both Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Romero are in heaven. Even a number of their critics are also in heaven. Surely Pope Paul will not begrudge their criticism. But would not the critics feel a bit embarrassed?
In 1977, Pope Paul stood firm on his decision to carry out his vision. Today Pope Francis is also faces the same kind of difficulties. 
Media criticism of the Holy See or even of the Holy Father has not stopped. But as Catholics, should we not step back a little bit and reflect: it is easy to criticise, but have we also shared the worries and burden of our Holy Father?
We may never fully understand the decision making process of the Holy Father, but we should have the faith in the pope’s decision.