ROME – Several significant developments for the Catholic Church in China have occurred over the past week, including a new bishop’s appointment and the establishment of a new diocese on the mainland for the first time since Mao’s Communist revolution.

On Jan. 29, the Vatican announced the suppression of the apostolic prefecture of Yiduxian in China and the establishment of the Diocese of Weifang in a bid to “promote the pastoral care of the Lord’s flock and to attend more effectively to its spiritual good.”

A Vatican statement said the decision to replace the Yiduxian prefecture with the Diocese of Weifang was made on April 20, 2023, and that at the same time, Bishop Anthony Sun Wenjun, 53, had been appointed to lead the diocese.

Wenjun’s episcopal ordination took place Jan. 29 in the cathedral of Christ the King in Qingzhou, the former headquarters for the Apostolic Prefecture of Yiduxian, in a ceremony led by Bishop John Fang Xingyao of Linyi, honorary president of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), the state-sanctioned entity that governs the “official” Catholic Church in China.

Established in June 1931 by Pope Pius XI and entrusted to French Franciscan missionaries, Yiduxian became vacant in 2008 with the death of its former bishop, Joseph Sun Zhibin, who was one of five bishops ordained by Beijing without papal consent in 1988, but who eventually requested and obtained approval from Rome.

The establishment of the Diocese of Weifang marks the first formal creation of a new diocese by the Holy See in China since the Communist revolution in 1949.

According to AsiaNews, the new borders for the Diocese of Weifang were decided on by Chinese authorities based on existing urban divisions and were accepted by the Holy See.

In 1949, the site reports, the Catholic church in China consisted of 147 ecclesiastical territories divided into 20 archdioceses and 96 dioceses, including Macau, Hong Kong, Baotou, and Bameng, along with 29 apostolic prefectures and two ecclesiastical administrations, Harbin and Hulubei’er.

Currently, according to Chinese officials, there are 104 dioceses in China, excluding Macau and Hong Kong.

The creation of the Weifang diocese also conforms to the state-sanctioned Chinese ecclesial structural system, as there are only dioceses, with no metropolitan sees or apostolic prefectures.

Four days prior to the announcement of the establishment of the Diocese of Wenjun, the Vatican announced the ordination of Bishop Thaddeus Wang Yuesheng, who on Dec. 16, 2023, was appointed bishop of Zhengzhou in the Henan province by Pope Francis “in the framework of the Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China.”

The terms of that agreement, initially signed in 2018 and subsequently renewed by both sides, remain secret, and has been a source of controversy among critics who charge that it’s induced the pope and his Vatican team to mute criticism of China’s record on human rights and religious freedom.

Yuesheng, 57, had previously served as a diocesan priest in Zhengzhou, and, according to AsiaNews, is the provincial president of the CCPA in Henan and in that capacity was also the CCPA’s designated administrator for Zhengzhou.

Zhengzhou has been without a bishop since Italian Xaverian missionary Faustino Tissot was exiled in 1953.

The ordination of Yuesheng as the diocese’s new bishop marks the first episcopal ordination in China in two years and is the first agreed-on appointment by the Vatican and China since their 2018 provisional agreement on episcopal appointments was renewed for the second time in 2022.

Rather than jointly approved appointments, Chinese authorities in recent years have made several unilateral transfers of bishops without Rome’s knowledge or consent, including the November 2022 transfer of Bishop Pen Weizhao to the diocese of Jiangxi and the April 2023 transfer of Bishop Shen Bin to Shenghai.

The most recent episcopal appointment made according to the terms of the agreement was over two years ago, when Franciscan Bishop Francis Cui Qingqi was ordained as bishop of Wuhan in September 2021.

Notably, the establishment of the Diocese of Weifang on April 20, 2023, was made during the interim between China’s unauthorized transfer of Bishop Shen Bin to Shenghai on April 4, 2023, and the pope’s subsequent approval of that transfer in July 2023.

Pope Francis has gone to great lengths to build bridges with Chinese authorities since his election in 2013, and last year he made several significant gestures aimed at strengthening ties.

Following his eventual approval of the transfer of Bishop Shen Bin to Shenghai, the pope in September 2023 gave a special shout-out to the “noble Chinese people” during a whirlwind trip to Mongolia, and later that month he gave a red hat to the current bishop of Hong Kong, Stephen Chow.

A Jesuit, Chow has repeatedly insisted that his vision for Hong Kong is to be a “bridge-builder” between the Vatican and China and is generally seen as a friendly figure by Chinese officials. In April 2023 Chow made a visit to Beijing that was reciprocated when Beijing Archbishop Li Shan visited Hong Kong in November.

Two state-approved Chinese bishops attended part of the pope’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality in October, and it is expected that they will return for the second edition of the gathering scheduled for October of this year.

The developments of the past week signal further steps toward a full reconciliation between the Holy See and China, which has long been a desire for Vatican officials.

After the pope accepted Bishop Shen Bin’s transfer to Shenghai last year, Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin published an interview with Vatican News, the Vatican’s state-run information platform, voicing hope that a permanent resident papal representative to Beijing would soon be named.

The new papal overtures come at a time when China’s treatment of its religious minorities is once again a source of global debate.

On Jan. 23, the United Nations Council on Human Rights met in Geneva to discuss the current situation in China, which was criticized by western democratic societies, including the United States, over its treatment of Uyghurs, Tibetans and pro-democracy dissidents in Hong Kong.

In the session, representatives of the United Kingdom urged China to “cease the persecution and arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and Tibetans and allow genuine freedom of religion or belief and cultural expression without fear of surveillance, torture, forced labor or sexual violence.”

They also recommended that the Beijing-imposed national security law in Hong Kong be repealed and called for the prosecution of Catholic media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai, who is currently on trial for collusion with foreign forces and has been in prison since 2020, to be dropped.

The United States similarly said China ought to “release all arbitrarily detained individuals” and cease the operation of “forcible assimilation policies including boarding schools in Tibet and Xinjiang.”

These recommendations came as part of a periodic review by the UN Human Rights Council, in which the 193 member states review each other’s human rights records every five years.

Since China’s last review in 2018, massive pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong and were quickly suppressed, the territory’s strict national security law was imposed, and international scrutiny over the situation in Xinjiang has increased.

China’s UN ambassador, Chen Xu, during the Jan. 23 session rejected the criticism of its record, saying it was based on “misunderstanding or misinformation.”

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