Sunday, May 19, 2024

Controversial Chinese bishop to speak at Vatican conference

Next week a high-profile conference will be held marking the centenary of the Catholic Church’s first ever council in China, drawing a slew of experts and featuring prominent Vatican speakers, including Pope Francis.

On May 21, a conference titled “100 years since the Concilium Sinense: Between history and present,” will be held at Rome’s Pontifical Urban University, marking the 100th anniversary of the Council of Shanghai.

The conference, organised in collaboration with Fides News, a missionary news site attached to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelisation, is slated to feature a slew of high-profile speakers from the Vatican and China, including Pope Francis and a bishop who was initially appointed without his approval.

Pope Francis will open the day-long conference with a video message, after which a video on the 1924 Council of Shanghai will be shown.

After the video, a brief greeting will be given by Bishop Joseph Shen Bin of Shanghai, who in April 2023 was transferred from the Diocese of Haimen (Jiangsu) to Shanghai by Chinese authorities without the pope’s approval.

Despite the fact that the move violated the terms of a 2018 provisional agreement between the Holy See and China on episcopal appointments, Pope Francis three months later, in July 2023, formally appointed Shen Bin as bishop of Shanghai.

The announcement of the pope’s decision to accept his appointment was accompanied by an interview with Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in which Parolin suggested that “a stable liaison office” between the Holy See and China be opened in Beijing.

Relations between the Vatican and China have appeared to accelerate ever since, with Pope Francis offering a specific shout-out to the “noble Chinese people” during the closing Mass of his September 2023 visit to Mongolia, marking the first-ever papal visit there, and the closest a pope has come to China.

During that trip, Francis offered repeated assurances to Mongolian authorities, which many believe were also directed at China, that the Church was not a threat to society, but a benefit through its social and charitable works, and that one could be both a good Christian and a good citizen.

Later in September, the pope named Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong a cardinal. Last year, Chow made a historic visit to Beijing at the invitation of Beijing’s Bishop Li Shan, who himself visited Hong Kong in November 2023.

Two Chinese bishops also participated in the first part of the pope’s global Synod of Bishops on Synodality last October, and it is expected they or other prelates from China will also participate in this year’s second, closing synod session.

In addition to Shen Bin, other prominent speakers will also participate in next week’s conference, including Professor Zheng Xiaoyun Presidente Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Elisa Giunipero, Professor of Chinese History at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, who will reflect on the theme, “The First Chinese Council: For a local and universal Church.”

Parolin will then deliver a keynote address to open the afternoon session, which will also feature talks by Father Flavio Belluomini, an archivist in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelisation, and Italian layman Gianni Valente, director of Fides News.

The day will close with a keynote address from Filippino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelisation, overseeing the section for First Evangelisation and New Particular Churches.

Held from May 15-June 12, 1924, the Council of Shanghai formulated detailed provisions for the revitalisation of the Church’s activities in China in light of the apostolic letter Maximum Illud by Pope Benedict XV in 1919, which insisted that faith in Christ “is not foreign to any nation”.

The document also insisted that in every place on earth, becoming Christian did not mean “placing oneself under the protection and power of another country and escaping the law of one’s own”.

Bishops, priests and religious, most of whom were foreign missionaries, came to China and participated in the Council under the direction of the first Apostolic Delegate in China, Archbishop Celso Costantini, who was later named a cardinal, at the cathedral of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Shanghai.

Among other things, the Council issued provisions for the growth of a native clergy, with Chinese bishops, priests, and religious being entrusted with leadership of local communities and initiatives, as well as measures intended to counteract a “colonial mentality” that had influenced Church practices at the time.

According to Fides, the Rome conference next week is intended to reflect “on this synodal experience to understand its meaning and relevance for the development of the Catholic Church in China and the dynamics of apostolic work in the age of globalisation.”

It is noteworthy that the conference on the Council of Shanghai is being held just months before the Vatican and China’s provisional agreement on episcopal appointments, which expires in October, is expected to be renewed for the third time.

Though never made public, the deal is believed to be modelled after the Holy See’s agreement with Vietnam, which allows the Holy See to pick bishops from a selection of candidates proposed by the government.