ROME – While many are celebrating the ordination of the first bishop in China since a deal was struck between the Vatican and the Chinese government on bishop appointments last year, some experts have said the event is indicative of neither the terms of the agreement or its success, since the bishop ordained had been selected before the accord was signed.
On Monday liturgical expert Father Antonio Yao Shun, 54, was ordained Bishop of Jining, also known as Ulanqab, in Inner Mongolia. According to Asia News, some 120 priests, many of whom are natives to Jining, concelebrated the Mass, which took place in the city’s cathedral.
In September 2018 the Vatican announced that it had signed a “provisional agreement” with the People’s Republic of China on the appointment of bishops, formally recognizing eight prelates who had been named by the Chinese government and were previously excommunicated.
Yao Shun’s ordination as bishop of Jining, a post which had been vacant since his predecessor’s death in 2017, made him the first Chinese priest to be ordained a bishop since the Vatican’s agreement with China was made.
In an Aug. 27 statement, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni confirmed that Yao Shun was ordained with the papal mandate, meaning he has the papal seal of approval and was ordained with permission from Rome.
Bruni said Yao Shun’s ordination was the first to take place “in the framework of the Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China” signed last September, however, he did not respond to an immediate request for clarity on whether Yao Shun had been selected prior to the agreement.
Yao Shun’s ordination was covered by international press, including China’s Global Times, which is closely aligned with China’s communist party.
Born in Jining in 1965, Yao Shun was ordained a priest in 1991 and studied in both the United States and Jerusalem. He previously taught at China’s national seminary and collaborated with a liturgical commission overseen by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and by the Council of Chinese Bishops, the two structures that oversee the country’s Catholic bishops.
His episcopal motto is the same one chosen by Pope Francis for the 2015-2016 Jubilee of Mercy: “Be merciful as your Father is (merciful).”
Yet while his ordination has been celebrated by those who lament the fact that China has been losing bishops in recent years, since many have died with no replacement named, some observers say that while a positive development, the ordination cannot be a test for the success of last year’s Vatican-China deal.
“In itself it is positive that they did this ordination, because since the agreement, there have not been any episcopal ordinations, and so many are needed in China,” Father Bernard Cervellera, head of Asia News, told Crux, saying there are at least 40 episcopal vacancies to fill in China.
However, he insisted that Monday’s ordination “is still not indicative of how the agreement works, because this is not a bishop chosen by the mechanism implemented by the agreement. In the Vatican they already made the choice beforehand.”
Though chronologically the ordination took place after the agreement was made, “the Holy See had already named him some time ago,” Cervellera said. In this sense, the ordination is “not significant of anything” when it comes to the agreement.
Since the 1949 Communist takeover of China, Catholicism in the country has been split between an “official” church that cooperates with the government’s Patriotic Association and an “underground” church which resists its control.
At the time, no details of the agreement were released. Nearly a year later, the terms of that deal still have not been made public, and many have criticized the Vatican for keeping it secret, calling for more transparency.
According to Cervellera, while people are happy about Yao Shun’s ordination, they don’t know what it means for the wider Catholic Church in China, because they don’t know how much control the government has.
“Based on the comments I’ve received from China, they say, ‘we don’t understand well what this ordination means, if it’s something that guarantees the freedom of the Church or not,’” Cervellera said, explaining that the nomination was done by the Council of Chinese Bishops, which he said “is not recognized by the Holy See” since there are no Rome-appointed members, only those named by the government.
“It’s a bit clumsy. After the pope gives his okay, officially the nomination comes from the Council of Bishops, and the Council of Bishops is something not recognized by the Holy See,” he said, explaining that it’s “all very ambiguous and a little confusing” for many people on the ground.
Since the agreement was made last year, at least one man, Zhang Tongli, who claims to be a bishop in Shanghai’s so-called “underground church” has threatened to ordain priests without approval from the Vatican since the deal was a betrayal to Catholics in China.
According to UCAnews, Zhang is believed to have received a secret episcopal ordination in the late 1990s on the basis of a special privilege given to the Church in China by St. John Paul II in the 1980s, which allowed ordinations to take place without Vatican permission, but which were required to be reported to the pope afterward. This privilege was revoked by Benedict XVI in his 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics.
Zhang told UCAnews that he has met with several Vatican officials in the past, including Cardinal Fernando Filoni, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and that he has “never committed malfeasance.”
The Vatican-China agreement “makes the Church in China more complicated. For the faithful, the Church can continue. I cannot reject [ordinations] anymore,” he said, explaining that he has received several requests for ordinations in the past which he has turned down.
However, according to some observers in China, Zhang is considered unstable among some Chinese bishops, and while there is genuine concern over his threats to conduct ordinations without permission, he himself is not taken seriously by other bishops, be they government-appointed or underground.
In his comments to Crux, Cervellera said much still remains unclear for Chinese Catholics since they do not know how much power the government has over the Church, or whether and to what extent the pope is able to exert his own authority.
“We don’t know how the agreement works, because it has not been put into practice,” he said, explaining that the only details available are what has been reported – that the agreement allegedly allows the Chinese government to put forward candidates with the pope making the final selection.
However, “What is important is the bishop of (Inner) Mongolia,” he said, adding that just to have a bishop ordained is in itself a positive step for the Catholic Church in China.
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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