All Eyes on First Episcopal Ordination in China since Francis became Pope

In what could be a bellwether for Sino-Vatican relations, for the first time in three years a bishop approved by the Holy See will be ordained for the Catholic Church in mainland China on August 4. Father Joseph Zhang Yinlin will be ordained then as pastor of the diocese of Anyang in the province of Henan province, central China.

It will be the first episcopal ordination since Francis became pope on March 13, 2013, and if conducted in a way acceptable to Rome it would be an important indicator of the status of Sino-Vatican relations.

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There is “a lot of secrecy” surrounding the ordination, according to one Chinese source. Indeed, just two days before the ceremony the names of the co-consecrating bishops have not been announced. An informed source said the 90-year-old bishop of Anyang, Msgr. Thomas Zhang Huaixin will be the chief consecrator, but the names of the co-consecrators are still secret. If all the consecrating bishops are in good standing with Rome then that would be a very positive indicator of the current state of Sino-Vatican relations. If, on the other hand, one of them is an illicit bishop—as has happened on a number of occasions in the past—that would be interpreted as a negative sign.

Bishop-elect Zhang said he could not confirm which bishops would preside at his ordination, when interviewed by UCA News, the main Catholic news agency in Asia that broke the news. “We sent out invitations to several bishops but cannot confirm who is attending,” he said.

As reported in America last May, the 44-year-old Father Zhang was one of two candidates elected to head dioceses in Henan province, in the carefully monitored “the democratic process” established by the State. At that time he was vicar-general of the diocese of Anyang, and his was the only name on the ballot sheet. The election took place on April 29, and of the 20 priests, 10 nuns and 10 lay leaders who participated, 38 cast their vote for him.

He will now head the diocese of Anyang, whose territory coincides with the city of the same name that has a population of over 5 million people. One of the former capitals of China and 346 miles from Beijing, it is the northernmost city of the province of Henan which is the birthplace of Chinese civilization.

The last public ordination of a bishop in China took place in Shanghai on July 7, 2012, when Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin was installed as an auxiliary of that diocese. But in protest against the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, he resigned from that entity, which is not recognized by the Holy See. He was detained that same day, and since then has been held under house arrest and not allowed to carry out his pastoral ministry as bishop.

It is good that Anyang gets a new bishop, but there are still some 40 dioceses without one in mainland China today, and this is a major pastoral problem for the Catholic Church there and its estimated 12 million faithful. The nomination of bishops is the most difficult question to be resolved between Rome and Beijing. Pope Francis is determined to do what he can to reach an accord with the Chinese leadership on this matter. 

Ever since his election, the first Jesuit pope—following in the footsteps of the famous Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci—has sought in various ways to extend the hand of friendship to the leadership of the People’s Republic of China. Shortly after his election, Francis sent a letter to the newly elected Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and received a response. Since then the two sides appear to be cautiously, if very slowly, opening to each other. They resumed their dialogue at the end of June 2014, when a Chinese delegation travelled to Rome for talks with its counterparts there. The following August, the Chinese authorities gave clearance for the papal flight to travel through China’s airspace on Francis’ journey to and from Seoul.

The Sino-Vatican dialogue has lasted for decades. The ball is now in China’s court and the way Beijing serves it on August 4 will reveal how it wishes to play.

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