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Tiananmen Square to St. Peter’s Square: Who are the Chinese bishops at the synod?

Bishop Joseph Guo Jincai (left) and Bishop Yang Xiaoting (right) at Opening of the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. (Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

While Chinese Bishop Joseph Guo Jincai is new to the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops, he has served three terms as a deputy to the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

As a member of China’s legislative body, Bishop Guo publicly supported an amendment to eliminate presidential term limits and enshrine “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in the Chinese Constitution in March 2018.

Weeks after his excommunication was lifted last month as a part of an agreement between China and the Holy See, Bishop Guo garnered attention in Rome as one of the first Chinese bishops to ever participate in an ecclesial synod, along with Bishop Yang Xiaoting of Yan’an.

Pope Francis opened the synod with a greeting for the two Chinese arrivals, saying that “the communion of the entire episcopate with the Successor of Peter is yet more visible thanks to their presence.”

The two Chinese bishops took part in the synod on young people, the faith, and vocation.

Young people in China face unique challenges in relation to faith. For example, due to a change in the Chinese government’s religious oversight earlier this year, it is now illegal for anyone under 18 years old to enter a church or religious building.

Bishop Guo told Chinese state media that he did not see any conflict between his role as a legislator and a bishop as the National People’s Congress convened last March.

“My position as a national legislator will not and cannot affect my religious service, as China implements the principle of separation of church and State,” Guo told the state-sponsored newspaper Global Times.

The Global Times reported that Guo went on to say that Catholics must adapt to socialist society in order to survive and develop in China, and a fundamental requirement for this is to be patriotic.

This echoes President Xi Jinping’s repeated comments that all religion in China must “Sinicize” or adapt to Chinese culture and society as defined by the state. In 2016, Xi told Chinese Communist Party leaders that they must “resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means.”

For decades, China’s 12 million Catholics have been split between an underground Catholic Church in full communion with the Holy See, sometimes subject to government persecution, and the government-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, whose bishops are appointed by the Communist government and have sometimes been ordained without papal approval.

Bishop Guo serves as secretary-general for the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC). Bishop Yang, the other Chinese synod delegate, serves as its vice-president.

This Chinese “episcopal conference” was deemed illegitimate in Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to Catholics in China because it is “governed by statutes that contain elements incompatible with Catholic doctrine.” It is unclear whether the Sept. 22 agreement between the Holy See and China recognized the Chinese government’s bishops’ conference as legitimate.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the objective of the September accord is “not political but pastoral” and will allow “the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”

Yang was ordained a bishop with both papal approval and government recognition in July 2010. The Yan’an bishop studied theology in Rome, obtaining a doctorate in 1999.

“As the family made up of husband and wife is always united, so is the Church, which is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. In Italy, in China or in other countries, the love of Christ is always the same. Pope Francis, who knows very well our situation in the Catholic Church in China, does not want to leave us, does not want to separate us from the universal Church,” Yang said at a Roman parish on Oct. 7, SIR, a news agency sustained by the Italian bishops’ conference, reported.

“I still ask you for help for this Church in China. Our Church is like a child, it is not very mature, so we need your accompaniment, your help and your prayer, always in the love of the Lord,” Yang continued after celebrating Mass at Santa Maria ai Monti.

Before leaving the synod early on Oct. 15 without explanation, the two Chinese bishops had the opportunity to speak with Pope Francis and invite him to visit China.

Guo and Yang stayed in Vatican City’s Santa Marta guesthouse, where “we could live together in daily life with the pope,” Bishop Guo told Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops conference, in an interview published Oct. 16.

“We could speak with familiarity as children with their father. He told us that he loves us, loves our country and always prays a lot to Christians in China,” Guo said.