From December 26 to 30 next the Ninth National Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives will be held in Beijing.
It is the most
authoritative gathering of the official Church in China, the one
recognized by the government. In its statutes such a meeting is called
the "sovereign body" on the Church.
The Assembly brings together dozens of official bishops recognized by
Beijing - those recognized by the Vatican and those who are not
recognized, illegitimate and even excommunicated. They will be joined by
representatives of the Patriotic Association (PA), bet they Catholics
or atheists as well as a number of priests, nuns and lay people.
In the last meeting, in December 2010 there were 341 members.
The assembly is tasked with outlining fields of commitment for
Catholics in society, Church activities, episcopal appointments and even
matters of theology.
The assembly also votes for the renewal of the
President of the Chinese Bishop’s Council (a sort of episcopal
conference not recognized by the Holy See because it does not include
underground bishops) and the president of the PA.
It is not yet known what specific topics will be addressed in the upcoming gathering. AsiaNews
sources say that PA officials have traveled far and wide throughout
China to invite the bishops to the meeting verifying (and sometimes
promising) the possible election of prelates to the two major charges.
It is common knowledge that there are no free and fair elections in
China, everything is prepared behind the scenes so that the assembly
vote is reduced to being a mere formality and its conclusion foregone.
Possible candidates for president of the Council of Bishops include Msgr. Joseph Shen Bin, 46, bishop of Haimen (Jiangsu), or Msgr. John Baptist Yang Xiaoting, 52, bishop of Yulin (Shaanxi).
Candidates for the presidency of the Patriotic Association include Msgr.
Joseph Guo Jincai, 48, illegitimate bishop of Chengde (Hebei). The
first two are both bishops recognized by the Holy See; however the
latter is one of eight illegitimate bishops. Indeed, Msgr. Guo Jincai,
ordained in 2010 was the first in a number of bishops ordained without
papal mandate, ushering in a new chapter of harassment and violence
against the religious freedom of the Christian community.
Other sources, however, expect that the Assembly will confirm the current Presidents: Msgr. Joseph Ma Yinglin, illegitimate bishop of Kunming (Conference Chair) and Msgr. Fang Xingyao of Linyi (president of the PA), who is close to the Beijing government.
Many lay Catholics and priests view the Assembly with indifference
and regard it as an opportunity for some opportunists devoid of any real
concern for the mission of the Church in China to continue their climb
to power .
But many priests of the official and underground Church are offended
by this meeting that mixes "rice and sand", the official bishops in
communion with the Pope and bishops excommunicated together, treating
them as equals and forcing them to share in the sacrament of unity. What
is of further concern is the fact that the bishops are not in charge of
proceedings - as would be the case for a Church that claims to be
"apostolic" - but the leaders of the Ministry of Religious Affairs
(State Administration for Religious Affairs, SARA), almost confirming
that the government, or the Communist Party, commands the Church in
China to the point of meddling in strictly religious matters such as the
appointment of bishops, issues of doctrine and liturgy, missionary
The Vatican’s silence
These priests recall that the Assembly, the Council of Bishops, the
Patriotic Association have been branded as "incompatible with Catholic
doctrine" by Benedict XVI in his Letter to Chinese Catholics (2007).
"And yet - one of them said to AsiaNews - attending these
meetings, joining this association has become an obvious fact, which no
longer causes any scandal, so much so it's almost a necessary element of
faith in China. This cheapens the meaning of faith and the sacrament of
the Eucharist, an expression of communion with Christ and with the Pope
Several priests of the unofficial church, which does not adhere to
the PA and because of this is persecuted, are amazed at the Vatican
silence on the whole affair. They, as well as many priests of the
official Church are asking the Holy See and Pope Francis to speak out,
criticizing this manipulation of faith, rather "we are awaiting his
In fact, when SARA organized the previous Assembly (December 7-9
2010), the Commission for the Church in China – still operative at the
time, led by Benedict XVI - had asked the priests and the bishops bound
to the Pope to avoid "making gestures (such as, for example, sacramental
celebrations, episcopal ordinations, attending meetings) that
contradict communion with the Pope "(March 2010). And many bishops have
followed this indication so that SARA delayed the appointment and eventually even physically forced several bishops to participate.
So far, the Holy See has been silent. However some Vatican
commentators, with an interpretation that echoes the PA, advise the
Vatican to keep quiet because after all the meeting wanted by Sara is
It may be “purely political” "thing", but in China everything is political, even religion.
The Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives is indeed of
singular worth: to affirm that religion is the property of the State (or
Party). In doing so SARA also obtains a second result: it divides the
Church more and more, increasing the gap between official and
underground Catholics. And this is an ecclesial problem. In addition,
the policy choices made in the Assembly have direct consequences on the
life of the Church in the (poor) prospects of evangelization and in the
appointment of bishops. This is why the Vatican’s silence seems to many
faithful and priests an endorsement of the situation or even complicit
An independent" Church, that is state property
If you look at previous gatherings, one realizes that the Assemblies
have been convened precisely to proclaim these Party truths: the state
"ownership" of the Church and the Catholic religion and its division.
In 1998 (January 17-20), at the Sixth Assembly, the bishops wanted to
elect President Msgr. Anthony Li Duan of Xian, known as a great pastor
faithful to the Pope. But the party decided to roll out the patriotic
bishop of Nanking, Msgr. Joseph Liu Yuanren and sad illegitimate bishop
of Beijing, Msgr. Michael Fu Tieshan.
In 2004 (July 7 to 9), there was still a hosanna to the "independence
of the Church" (from the Holy See), in submission to the Party, which
resulted in the reconfirmation of Liu Yuanren and Fu Tieshan.
In 2004 there was an attempt - in the words of Ye Xiaowen, then
director of the Religious Affairs - to destroy the canonization of the
Chinese martyrs, which took place in 2000. It had seen a convergence of
all Catholics on the cult of the martyrs: booklets distributed to all
the faithful; common celebrations between official and unofficial
communities; gestures of reconciliation. The campaign launched against
the canonization and the Assembly frightened official bishops and the
gestures of reconciliation soon faded.
The Assembly was then supposed to have convened in 2009, and maybe
even a few years earlier, given that in 2005 Msgr. Liu Yuanren died, and
Mgr. Fu Tieshan in 2007.
But the Letter of Benedict XVI to Chinese
Catholics unsettled the Chinese government, while now more than 90% of
the bishops had reconciled with the Pope and labored – at times with
fatigue – for the reconciliation between official and underground
communities. These germs of unity delayed the Assembly convocation,
which was postponed until the end of 2010, with police often physically
forcing the bishops to participate.
To humiliate the bishops and divide communities, in addition to the
Assembly, SARA (or more precisely the PA), used the instrument of
illegitimate ordinations without papal mandate: in 2000, in 2006 (with
the ordination of Ma Yinglin , the current president of the PA), in
2010-2011, before and after the Assembly.
They are currently using the exact same methods: ordinations with obligatory participation of excommunicated bishops (Chengdu and Xichang)
and convocation of the Assembly in late December.
The Vatican has also
been silent on this violation of the sanctity of the sacrament.
A divided Party
Since 2000, all these attempts have another purpose: to make
relations between China and the Vatican more difficult, detonating
conflict until breaking point.
Since 1999, the Holy See and China have
been trying to talk with rapprochements, meetings, exchanges of views,
but something always happens that forces the partners to separate.
Still, in all these years, the responsibility for the failure falls on
the PA (linked to the United Front and SARA).
All this is due primarily
to the fact that in a future agreement between China and the Holy See
the PA function and its control over the Church will be discussed:
although not an ecclesial association, it intrudes on the life of the
Church and even places itself above the bishops.
The second reason for this attitude is due to internal issues: a rift
between the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Religious
Affairs increasingly apparent.
The first clearly favor a more relaxed
relationship with the Vatican, which would allow China to have a more
dignified and acceptable status in the international community; others
see the Vatican and its demand for freedom as a threat to their power.
A Party source in Beijing has told AsiaNews that the
presence of excommunicated Bishop Lei Shiyin in Chengdu and Xichang was
demanded by SARA and the United Front and not by the foreign ministry,
which was embarrassed into silence.
But the Vatican has remained silent, leading the faithful and
Christians around the world to believe that now the celebrations with
illegitimate bishops are something obvious and religious freedom is no
longer "the litmus test of all human rights" (John Paul II ), but a
superfluous good that you can do without in order to save a faint hope
in diplomatic relations.
For all this, the official and underground Catholics are appealing to
the Pope for an authoritative judgment on the assembly and ordinations
involving illegitimate bishops under police force.
But it is important that the whole universal Church urge the Chinese
authorities to respect the dignity and religious rights of its citizens,
without forcing them to participate in rallies and to do things against