The Vatican has said it is disturbed by reports from mainland China that government officials are forcing bishops to attend an illicit episcopal ordination.
Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said: “If these reports are true, then the Holy See would consider such actions as grave violations of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.
“It would also consider such an ordination as illicit and damaging to the constructive relations that have been developing in recent times between the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See,” the statement said.
Fr Lombardi confirmed that Fr Joseph Guo Jincai, scheduled to be ordained bishop of Chengde on Saturday, did not have the approval of Pope Benedict XVI to be ordained a bishop.
He said the Vatican, “keen to develop positive relations with China”, had contacted Chinese authorities to make its position on the ordination clear.
In recent years, a Chinese diocese’s priests, nuns and laypeople have elected their new bishop, and most of those elected have applied to the Holy See for approval. If such approval was given, it often was announced at the episcopal ordination.
China requires that the bishops be approved by the government-sanctioned Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, which the Vatican does not recognise.
Anthony Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, told the Asian church news agency UCA News in 2009 that papal approval would not be a factor for the bishops’ conference determining a candidate’s suitability.
“Since China and the Vatican do not have diplomatic ties and normal communication channels, we will endorse the qualified candidate just as in the past,” he said. He added that it is up to the local diocese to ask the Vatican to approve the bishop candidate if the diocese wishes to do so.
UCA News reported that at least four bishops of Hebei province and Bishop Paul Pei Junmin of Liaoning were on the list of prelates scheduled to attend the Chengde ordination.
Bishop Pei, 41, who earned master’s degrees in theology and biblical studies at St Charles Borromeo seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, was in Inner Mongolia’s Chifeng Diocese to ordain new priests.
“Religious officials of Liaoning have arrived there to escort him to Chengde, probably tomorrow,” a source told UCA News.
Catholics in Hebei said they hoped the outside world would know the difficult situation of the bishops, and asked for people’s prayers for them.
China requires bishops to register with the government, but many believe this forces them to operate within certain limits. A 2007 letter from Pope Benedict to Chinese Catholics emphasised that some aspects of the patriotic association 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.
Many of China’s older bishops spent time in prison during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and found the strength to resist government pressures once China began allowing Catholics to practise their faith in the early 1980s.
But the new generation of bishops – most of whom are in their late 30s and early 40s – find it more difficult to resist. Several young bishops have indicated they realised the pressures they would face when they accepted the job, and at least one indicated to Catholic News Service that it was his way of bearing Jesus’s cross.
Media reports in 2006 indicated some young bishops already recognised by both the Holy See and Chinese religious authorities were tricked into participating in the ordination of a new bishop not approved by authorities in Rome. Several of the ordaining bishops were invited to attend a meeting about Church properties in one city and instead were driven to Xuzhou for the ordination. One young bishop called his secretary to come pick him up and managed to escape.