How to Unite?

The controversy surrounding a bishop in a Catholic diocese about 100 miles outside of Beijing illustrates the problems facing Chinese Catholic communities trying to follow Pope Benedict XVI’s instructions to unite. Coadjutor Bishop Francis An Shuxin of Baoding, who spent 10 years under house arrest for refusing to join the government-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, agreed last year to join his local association—a move he hoped would foster unity between Catholic communities that have registered with the government and those that have refused.

In August the government conducted an installation Mass to make Bishop An head of the Catholic community in Baoding. The move was controversial because the Vatican-recognized head of the diocese, Bishop James Su Zhimin, was detained in October 1997 and has not been released. He surfaced briefly in a hospital in November 2003, but there has been no news about him since then.

The ceremony provoked discord in the Catholic community that Bishop An hoped to unify, and the bishop has been described by some critics as a puppet of the Chinese government. One of the 40 unregistered priests who chose not to attend the ceremony said that at this time there is “no more space for reconciliation” with the registered community. “At a meeting in June, we reminded Bishop An to be loyal to the church, his faith and the pope’s letter. It is he who has not followed the faith, not we who are refusing to reconcile,” he said.

Despite the installation Mass, the Vatican still regards Bishop An as coadjutor. Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian Missionhurst priest who directs the Verbiest Institute at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and is one of the most authoritative experts on Catholicism in China, said, “It is well known that Bishop An insisted with Chinese authorities that he considers Bishop Su...the bishop of Baoding and himself as coadjutor. Authorities did not contradict that, but they did insist on having such an ‘installation ceremony.’”

Pope Benedict’s 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics urged reconciliation between the two Catholic communities that in some parts of China, like Hebei province, where Baoding is located, operate in the same cities and sometimes even the same parishes. The letter emphasized that some aspects of the government’s religious policies were incompatible with church teaching and said the Holy See “leaves the decision to the individual bishop,” having consulted his priests, “to weigh...and to evaluate the possible consequences” of joining the association.

“I refused to join the [Catholic Patriotic Association] at first after I was released in 2006,” Bishop An said. “I changed my mind after reading the pope’s letter.” Bishop An has become one of the five vice chairmen of the local branch of the Catholic Patriotic Association and director of the Church Affairs Committee. Bishop An said he felt helpless over the divisions in the Catholic community in his diocese and hoped that by taking positions in the government-sanctioned bodies, he could “facilitate the diocese’s development.”

His decision to join the government-recognized association is similar to that faced by thousands of Catholics who suffered after the Communist government closed churches in the late 1950s and during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. They kept their faith alive under persecution and later had to decide whether or not to worship and work openly within the system under restrictions imposed by the government.

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