Chinese pilgrims with an image of Our Lady of Fatima. Photo: Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis continues to pursue dialogue with China but will Beijing do the same?

For Father Criveller, PIME missionary and China expert, by appointing Shen Bin as bishop of Shanghai, the pope shows that he cares for the people of God and we are with him. But Card Parolin’s interview clearly indicates that the Holy See is disappointed by the situation. It is hard to imagine that Chinese authorities, who are bent on nationalising religions, would stop acting unilaterally.

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Gianni Criveller

(ZENIT News – Ecclesia in Asia (Asia News) / Roma, 07.18.2023).- Pope Francis appointed Joseph Shen Bin as bishop of Shanghai (China), the Vatican Press Office announced, transferring him from the Diocese of Haimen (Jiangsu). At the same time, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin gave an unusual interview to unnamed “Vatican media” and interviewer, with numbered questions. For all intents and purpose, the interview is a proper statement, without being formal and official.

First, I would like to say that given the act of governance by the Holy Father, we Catholics hope that his intentions, for which we pray every day, will be realised. And the intentions are for the good of the people of God in China and Shanghai.

The Secretary of State, for his part, clarified, as far as possible, the circumstances which led to the decision. In fact, some observers expected that it would come to this sooner or later, that the pope would endorse, however reluctantly, the decision made by the Chinese authorities last April.

By transferring Bishop Shen without consultation, Chinese authorities have saddened and wounded the Holy See. For a quite a few Catholics, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, the papal decision is yet another example of the Holy See yielding to the abuses of China’s religious policy, implemented with little regard for the letter and spirit of the 2018 agreement, which was renewed twice.

The Holy See’s disappointment comes clearly through in Card Parolin’s interview. He could not make more explicit how serious the situation is since, by accepting Shen Bin’s transfer to Shanghai, the pope is signalling that he does not want to be ensnared by its difficulties and unfairness, and yet, despite everything. he is still prepared to give the dialogue with China a chance.

On  Sunday 9 July, the elevation of Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong to the cardinalship –which follows his appointment as a member of the synod, the only Chinese prelate to be included – shows that Cardinal-Designate Chow is an important figure of mediation. He has never spoken out on the Shanghai affair, and has said that he does not consider the agreement between China and the Holy See to be a failure.

Card Parolin goes so far as to assert that it would be appropriate now to take a further step, and set up a permanent liaison office to improve communication between the two parties. Despite everything, the Holy See continues to believe in dialogue, but is its interlocutor on the same wavelength? Could such an office cope with what seems to be, on China’s part, a real strategic choice: i.e. pursue unilaterally an increasingly nationalistic religious policy aimed at “sinicisation”?

We believe that it is not so much the lack of links, but of sincere willingness on the part of Chinese authorities to engage in dialogue that makes everything so difficult. It is hard to imagine that Shanghai will the final example of unilateral action, however much we would like it to be.

In any case, saving the agreement, as the only formal link, however imperfect, between the Holy See and China, is not the only concern. The Vatican is worried about the terrible ecclesial situation in which the diocese of Shanghai finds itself.

Card Parolin’s interview makes only one simple reference to Joseph Shen, the young bishop of Shanghai who also chairs the College of Chinese Catholic Bishops (this according to the statement by the Vatican Press Office).

The secretary of state describes the bishop as an ‘esteemed pastor’, even though he apparently did not ask for authorisation or inform the Holy See at the time of his transfer. Possibly he was able, somehow, to communicate with the Holy See and explain himself.

Shanghai has been without a pastor for 10 years. The last bishop, Aloysius Jin Luxian, died on 27 April 2013. Ten years is far too long, with the authorities preventing the two auxiliary bishops from exercising their ministry.

Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin has been under de facto house arrest, confined to Sheshan seminary, with his episcopal duties virtually abolished (even if canonically impossible, of course).

It strikes me as a positive development that Card Parolin mentions both him and Joseph Xing Wenzhi, who have been de facto removed from office, the latter ostensibly “retired to private life”. As repeatedly noted, Xing’s ecclesial and personal situation deserve to be clarified, for he has the right to an honourable and unshackled existence.

Hopefully, Bishop Shen Bin will be able to renew Church life in Shanghai now that he has papal approval and, as it is all too clear, the support of political authorities. Perhaps he might start with those fellow bishops who have been ostracised by those in power. It will also be important to see the reaction among Catholics in Shanghai, including the faithful who are not aligned with the government.

Founded in 1607 by Paul Xu Guangqi, who was the best friend, partner and disciple of Matteo Ricci, one of the pillars of Chinese Catholicism, Shanghai’s Catholic community now begins a new, difficult and uncertain chapter in its journey. We shall follow it with friendship and the spirit of those who believe in the Communion of Saints.

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