SYDNEY (CNS) -- As part of its ongoing efforts to reconcile China's
Catholic communities, the Vatican recognized two previously
excommunicated Chinese bishops as heads of dioceses.
The move came after an unprecedented Beijing meeting that included a
group of Vatican officials led by Pope Francis' chief China negotiator,
Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli; Chinese bishops jointly recognized by
the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, run by the ruling Chinese
Communist Party; and a group of Vatican-appointed bishops from the
so-called underground church, which only recognizes the authority of
Rome and not the patriotic association.
"The latest trip of the delegation of the Holy See to China is
especially important because, for the first time, it was concentrated on
the life of the church in China, and no longer on formal
diplomatic-political issues," Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at
Beijing's Renmin University and former correspondent for Italian media,
told Catholic News Service.
"There was a cathartic climate in the meeting of the Vatican
delegation and the bishops of the nine dioceses recognized by the
Vatican. Official and underground bishops wept, prayed together and
reconciled one another and with the delegation from the Holy See," Sisci
said, adding he believed it was "a very important moment in the life of
the Church in China."
Chinese state media announced Dec. 14 and CNS confirmed that Bishop
Zhan Silu becomes head of Mindong Diocese. Vatican-appointed Bishop Guo
Xijin, who has headed the Mindong Diocese since 2006 and who has been
detained by authorities a number of times in the past year, has finally
agreed to step down to the position of auxiliary, a request first made
by the Vatican in late 2017. Bishop Zhan is the vice chairman of the
Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China that is yet to be
recognized by Rome and is one of seven state-appointed bishops recently
recognized by the pope as part of the Sept. 22 provisional agreement
between China and the Vatican.
"I will become the auxiliary bishop, and Bishop Zhan Silu will be the
diocesan bishop in Mindong," Bishop Guo told the state-run Global
Times, adding, "here's nothing to worry about, as this is God's will."
Bishop Huang Bingzhang becomes head of Shantou Diocese. There has
been no report on the situation of Bishop Zhuang Jianjian, 88, who was
the bishop of Shantou from 2006 and was asked by the Vatican in late
2017 to retire and take up a post of bishop emeritus.
At the meeting, a range of issues were discussed, including the need
to find more candidates for the priesthood to fill China's emptying
"Government officials organized the meeting but did not interfere in
the proceeding," Sisci said. They also encouraged the increase of
vocations, because "large seminaries have been built, and they have to
be filled with new priests."
The September agreement between the Vatican and China, which has been
characterized as provisional and temporary, gives the Vatican complete
control over the nomination of bishops, according to Pope Francis, who
has noted that, with every "peace treaty" and every negotiation, "both
sides lose something." Although the full content of the agreement
remained secret, it did include recognition of seven bishops appointed
by the patriotic association but previously not confirmed by the
Vatican, lifting their excommunications. The fate of up to 30 other
bishops who refused to join the patriotic association remains unknown.
Sisci said that, during the December meeting, Archbishop Celli, the
man in charge of the issue since the time of St. John Paul II, mediated
between two bishops, one underground and one who approved by the
government. He added that this was something China had tried to do on
its own for many years but failed.
"It means Beijing recognizes and values the Vatican contribution to
the reconciliation," Sisci said. "This is very significant, because it
means that Beijing recognizes the added positive value of 'foreign'
intervention into its 'internal affairs.'"
The Vatican and Beijing have emphasized that the agreement is very
much focused on religion rather than politics, a difficult distinction
to make in China, where the ruling Communist Party exercised control
over all religion and religious activities via its state-run
organizations, which are now all under the umbrella of the Communist
Party's United Front Work Department.
The Global Times, an English-language state-run newspaper, quoted
Wang Meixiu, described as an expert on Catholic studies at the
well-regarded Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying that
continuing talks included possible changes in church property and
dioceses and that they would be "complicated and time-consuming."
"It's up to the Chinese government to decide when is the right time,"
she said. "In recent years, the government has recognized at least six
underground bishops which it hadn't formerly recognized. Therefore,
acknowledgment from the government is possible."
"In some dioceses, the situation is easier, while in others, it will
be more complicated. The Vatican and China will have to tackle each
situation differently," she said.