CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 13 January 2018

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Shanghai bishop’s bravery inspires

by Father Zhong Guan

Chinese Catholics worldwide rejoiced in early July, as a brave man in the Shanghai diocese stood up for the principles of his faith against intimidation and certain retribution from state authorities. It was only a day after the illicit ordination in Harbin of Father Joseph Yue Fusheng.

Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin publicly proclaimed his allegiance to the universal Church during his Vatican-approved ordination on July 7, and the response by authorities was swift.

The proceedings were handled with great care, surprising all close observers of the China Church.

In the past few years, episcopal ordinations in the official, or government-sanctioned Church community, have been abject failures. Strictly speaking, according to Canon Law and the teachings of the Church, they were all problematic.

Ordaining bishops in legitimate ceremonies have often been forced to concelebrate with illicitly ordained bishops. In the last three illicit ordinations, all participating bishops were Vatican-approved—a serious breach of Church law for which excommunication can be the penalty.

Those involved often said that they were pressured to take part, while observers remained unsurprised by such charades.

All criticisms and exhortations were of no avail and even the threat of automatic excommunication could not stop these illicit ordinations.

Members of the China Church fell into deep despair. What else was there to be done?

The ordination of Bishop Ma answered that question and, in the process, sent a message to the fearful and the weak that Catholics still have the right and fortitude to say no to political power.

The ordination of Bishop Ma was originally a source of joy to the Shanghai diocese as it prepared to welcome its new pastor.

But, when a vice president of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, himself an illicitly ordained bishop, was scheduled to take part in the ceremony, joy turned to sorrow. 

When the diocese’s protests were ignored, it adopted a series of strategies to protect the integrity of Church law and the dignity of the Catholic community.

First, 90 per cent of the diocese’s priests opted not to attend the ordination. Second, seminarians who attended as choir members, as well as the altar servers, donned purple albs, the colour representing their grief and serving as a silent mark of protest.

Then, as the bishops and priests prepared to enter the cathedral, a layperson stepped boldly forward to denounce the illicit bishop, causing a stir at the end of the procession.

Inside the cathedral, the co-ordaining bishops were seated far away from the main celebrant, Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian. Only priests sat close to him.

At the key moment, when all bishops present lay hands on the head of the new bishop, no one wished to see any illicit bishop do so.

After Bishop Jin and the two Vatican-recognised co-ordaining bishops laid their hands on him, Bishop Ma unexpectedly stood up and hugged the three remaining bishops who were approaching, thereby avoiding their participation in the laying on of hands.

As he addressed the congregation after his ordination, Bishop Ma said he had been ordained as auxiliary bishop—the designation given him by the Vatican—and not coadjutor bishop, as the government had intended.

Loud applause erupted from the congregation after the bishop declared that he would quit the government Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which is not recognised as an official Catholic body by the Holy See.

Those in power were now confronted with the unyielding voice of the China Church. It has been several months now since auxiliary Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi, from Shanghai, mysteriously disappeared from view. Bishop Ma refused to move into his room, saying that he continues to wait for his return.

Perhaps after years of successful oppression, government authorities began to believe there was no battle they could not win and that no one would dare to oppose them openly.

Bishop Ma obviously caught them off guard. His actions and those of the diocese were not done lightly or suddenly, but after careful consideration of the potential consequences.

And the consequences were swift in arriving. Shortly after the ordination ceremony, Bishop Ma was taken away and has since been prohibited from assuming his duties as auxiliary bishop.

Shanghai is an influential and powerful diocese in China. Bishop Jin will soon turn 100-years-old and his successor will determine the future path of the diocese. But it is now unlikely that the Chinese authorities will ever allow Bishop Ma to assume his ministry.

However, he has accomplished a great deal despite official efforts to silence him.

Bishop Ma has inspired the China Church and reminded its members that they must put their faith ahead of their lives and their freedom.

He has also narrowed the divide between the official and unoffical Church communities, laying a solid foundation for reconciliation and communion. 

We can expect that more official communities will demonstrate their loyalty, while more unofficial communities will regard them as their true brothers and sisters in Christ.

Bishop Ma’s courage struck at the heart of illicit ordinations. In future, when illicit candidates bow their heads to the government, they will do so under greater pressure and at the risk of losing the support of their flock. Meanwhile, authorities will worry that future episcopal ordinations may prove another public embarrassment for them.

Thank you, Shanghai diocese. The China Church has learned from your confidence and courage. Remain strong. By fasting and prayer, we will be with you for upcoming challenges. We will accompany you during the tough times ahead and welcome any ray of hope.

 

Father Zhong Guan is the penname of a priest in mainland China

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