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Presence of illicit bishop puts spanner in the works at ordination

NANCHONG (SE): An illicit bishop in China put another spanner in the works at the ordination of Father Joseph Chen Gong’ao as the bishop of Nanchong diocese in south-western Sichuan province on April 19.

The sticking point was the presence of Father Paul Lei Shiyin, who was illicitly ordained a bishop in Leshan for the neighbouring diocese of Yibin on June 29 last year.

The Vatican has informed him that he should consider himself to be in a state of self-inflicted excommunication and he has been forbidden to administer the sacraments, act as a bishop or wear a bishop’s insignia.

UCA News reported that when questioned prior to the event on April 16, Father Lei said, “Why should I not go? This is the same question as before (his own ordination) and my answer is the same.”

He called it a normal and natural practice to congratulate and support each other whenever dioceses in the province hold big events.

Father Lei is also the president of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in Sichuan.

Forty-seven-year-old Bishop Chen enjoys a high reputation for creativity in his pastoral ministry and outreach to society, and is regarded as being a good priest.

Speaking at the ceremony, Bishop Chen thanked God for choosing him to be a bishop and also thanked the clergy and faithful people of the diocese for putting their trust in him and for honouring him in this way.

He added that he interpreted his ordination as a sacred mission and promised that he would seek to develop his spiritual life and ministry by following the example of his three predecessors as bishops in the diocese.

After his ordination, the new bishop said that one of the priorities of his episcopate would be ongoing formation among the priests, sisters and seminarians in his diocese and systematising the pastoral outreach of the Church.

He added that he hopes the upcoming 50th anniversary of the beginning of Vatican II will open new avenues for bringing priests and catechists into full play in spreading the faith and integrating it into the local culture in Nanchong.

In the building line, he pointed to the overflow crowd of almost 1,200 people present at the ordination in Sacred Heart Cathedral, noting that its seating capacity of only 800 is not big enough in a diocese of 86,000 people and he hopes to be able to address that.

Bishop Chen received approval from the Vatican to be ordained as a bishop in 2002, but his election as a bishop candidate through the Chinese government process only happened in 2010.

He has been the diocesan administrator of Nanchong and rector of the Sichuan Catholic Seminary. He also serves as a committee member of the National Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and is chairperson of the local branch in Nanchong.

Bishop Peter Fang Jianping, from Tangshan in northern Hebei province, who has previously taken part in illicit ordinations, but was able to patch things up with the Holy See, was the principal ordaining bishop.

Concelebrating bishops at the ordination Mass were Bishop Joseph Li Jing, from Ningxia; and Bishop Paul He Zeqing, from Wanzhou; together with Bishop Paul Xiao Zejiang, from Guiyang; and Bishop Peter Luo Xuegang, from Yibin.

Father Lei was conspicuous amongst them wearing the insignia of a bishop, which he has been forbidden to do by the Vatican.

People present at the ordination were quoted by AsiaNews as calling the presence of Father Lei disrespectful of the Church and a catalyst to further division within the Catholic community in China.

“President Hu Jintao is always talking about harmony in society,” one said, “but these presumptuous gestures create division.”

One priest from the unofficial community commented that a bishop should be a sign of unity in the Church, but he believes that Father Lei has fomented division through his presence.

AsiaNews reported that the secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples in the Vatican, Hong Kong-born Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai, said that the illegitimate bishop has “failed to respect the person of the new bishop and the community.”

He commented that Father Lei should have considered the needs of the community and stayed away.

“This explicit act of disobedience creates even more problems for him and the community,” the archbishop noted.

“In China, the Church has so many problems and issues. The path of disobedience does not solve anything. In fact, it runs the risk of self-destruction,” he commented.

Eighty-seven priests were also present at the ceremony.

Born in 1964, Bishop Chen graduated from the Sichuan Catholic Seminary in 1988 and was ordained a priest two years later. He has been the administrator of diocesan affairs since 2005 and became the seminary rector in 2008.

The diocese has 11 priests and 11 sisters. The bishop’s chair has been vacant since the death of Bishop Michael Huang Woze, in 2004.

One of the bishops present told UCA News prior to the event that he was not sure who would be at the ordination and that it is unwise to ask.

He said that even if Father Lei turns up, “I cannot intervene. Chen is a good friend of mine, so I will go to congratulate him.”

China Church watchers in Hong Kong said that the presence of Father Lei creates difficulties in terms of unity in the Church and harmony in society.

“This year is important, as it will see a change in the Chinese Communist Party leadership. Father Lei should not make the current situation worse by acting against Church law and the wishes of Catholics. There are ways to congratulate a new bishop other than participation,” he said.

Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai, said that the illegitimate bishop has ‘failed to respect the person of the new bishop and the community… This explicit act of disobedience creates even more problems for him and the community’


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