Holy See, China sign agreement on the appointment of Chinese bishops

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Holy See, China sign agreement on the appointment of Chinese bishops

By Gianni Valente/ lastampa.it

In a joint statement, the Vatican and the Beijing government announce that an agreement has been signed, presenting it as “the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement” and expressing the desire that the “agreement may favour a fruitful and forward-looking process of institutional dialogue”

The Holy See and the People’s Republic of China have signed a historic agreement regarding the methods of appointing Catholic bishops in the country. The announcement of the accord, which is destined to affect millions of Chinese Catholics and arouse interest and reactions worldwide, was made simultaneously in Rome and in Beijing. The official communiqué was released at 12 noon in Rome - 6 pm in Beijing - by the Vatican Press Office and the Chinese government.

The press release begins: “Today, 22nd September 2018, within the framework of the contacts between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China that have been underway for some time in order to discuss Church matters of common interest and to promote further understanding, a meeting was held in Beijing between Msgr Antoine Camilleri, Undersecretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States, and H.E. Mr Wang Chao, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, respectively heads of the Vatican and Chinese delegations. During that meeting, the two representatives signed a Provisional Agreement on the appointment of Bishops.”

The release defines the agreement as “the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement, which has been agreed following a long process of careful negotiation. The agreement” – continues the communique - “foresees the possibility of periodic reviews of its application. It concerns the nomination of Bishops, a question of great importance for the life of the Church, and creates the conditions for greater collaboration at the bilateral level”. The press release closes by expressing the shared hope “that this agreement may favour a fruitful and forward-looking process of institutional dialogue and may contribute positively to the life of the Catholic Church in China, to the common good of the Chinese people and to peace in the world”.

Why this Agreement is “Provisional”

The press release issued by the Vatican and the Chinese government says that the agreement between the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See has been signed, but it does not contain the text of said agreement. It is defined as “provisional” because it includes a period of time – probably a couple of years – to see how it works and assess its effects. The text has not been published because the agreement is considered to be a flexible tool that, with the consent of both parties, can be modified and improved during the experimental application period, even as far as the written text is concerned. For this reason, no details have been provided about the method that will be used in the future to appoint Chinese bishops. However, these procedures must not deviate much from those envisaged in an article that appeared in the daily Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, back in 2010, after an intense period of talks between the Holy See and the Chinese government seemed to have opened the door to a possible agreement concerning the appointment of Catholic bishops in China.

At that time, in the Communist Party of China’s online newspaper, Chinese researcher Liu Peng, director of the Pu Shi Institute for Social Science, had suggested that the appointment process being discussed during the Chinese-Vatican talks involved bishops being elected by Catholic representatives of the diocese (the priests, plus the representatives of the women religious and lay people) and approved by Chinese political officials, before being presented to the Holy See for evaluation and final approval. The Chinese professor, who seemed to have a good understanding of the matter, explained that the Holy See would have the authority to reject a candidate presented by the diocese who did not appear suitable to the role of bishop. At that point, other candidates would be considered, with more elections and talks, until a candidate was found whom the Holy See deemed worthy of ordination.

Stop-and-go and Unilateral Moves

Many questions are still open, such as the situation of bishops who are not recognised by government authorities (the so-called “underground” bishops), the status and role of the Chinese Bishops’ College (still not recognised as an official Church body by the Holy See, also because at the moment “underground” bishops are excluded). It is said that every journey is made one step at a time, and the negotiations between China and the Holy See have followed this gradual path: solving one problem after another instead of demanding that all issues be finalised at once. The parties have agreed on the work method, which should guarantee efficiency and continuing dialogue: as the process unfolds, each issue will be discussed at length until a solution is found that both parties approve, without interruptions or unilateral actions from one side or the other.

Changes and Implications

The agreement between China and the Holy See concerning the appointment of bishops is not like waving a magic wand. It does not allow triumphant celebrations or claims of “revolutionary developments”. On the contrary, it is only one step in a process that has been encouraged by at least three popes. One thing is certain: it is an important moment in a long process that has also seen difficulty, pain, conflict and misery. For the first time, an agreement that involves the People’s Republic of China recognises the role of the Pope as the spiritual and hierarchical leader of the Church, regarding a point that touches the essence of Catholic unity such as appointing bishops.

From now on, all Chinese bishops will be ordained in full and public communion with the Pope. Healing can finally begin to close the wounds inflicted to the unity of the Body of Christ over the past 70 years, caused by forced ordinations without papal consent, which have occurred in China starting in 1958. Suspects of invalid sacraments being administered in Chinese churches can finally be put to rest. Even the deceptive stereotypes of “two Churches” - one being “faithful to the Pope” and the other “linked to the Communist government” - can be silenced. Unfortunately, the media still propagates stories of Chinese Catholicism conforming to political standards. In time, the ghosts of cultish or divisional currents that have long tormented the Catholic community in China will fade. The Church is true to itself and completes its mission when it is united, despite the fact that it is persecuted and controlled.

The agreement between the Chinese government and the Holy See concerning the appointment of bishops is also a sweet victory – without anger or pride – of the sensus fidei of many Chinese Catholics. God’s people have shown through concrete actions that they do not want to listen to or approve bishops consecrated without a pontifical mandate. Moreover, many priests have been reluctant to become bishops if they were not appointed by the Pope. This has also disproved the idea that a “do-it-yourself style Church” was being formed, a body that completely conformed to the political orientation of the country. It also convinced the government that Catholic bishops are not party officials sent from the outside, and that the hierarchical ties with the Pope are an essential part of each bishop’s ministry. In this way, the Church in China has confessed also before mankind that the Kingdom of God, announced in the Bible, is not of this world, at the moment that it accepted and carried out its history without avoiding the cross. In the image of Christ.

Sun, 09/23/2018 - 09:26
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