The ordination of a Vatican-approved Chinese bishop has been postponed because of government pressure, while a government-backed illicit ordination of another man who lacks the Pope’s approval will go ahead.
Coadjutor Bishop-elect Joseph Sun Jigen of Handan in the northern Hebei province is presently being “looked after” by government officials in the provincial capital of Shijiazhuang, church sources told UCA News.
Public security officers took him and diocesan chancellor Fr. John Huai Jianting as soon as he completed the pre-ordination retreat on June 26 in neighboring Henan province, three days ahead of his scheduled ordination.
The two clergymen were forced into a police car. When nearing the city of Handan, Fr. Huai protested and tried to jump out. The officers then transferred him to another car and sent him back to the diocese.
The officers proceeded with the bishop-elect to Shijiazhuang.
Bishop Stephen Yang Xiangtai of Handan, 89, suffered a heart attack upon hearing the news. He is under treatment at the diocese-run Dazhong Hospital.
Nuns from a diocesan congregation have begun fasting and are in a 24-hour Eucharistic adoration to pray for the diocese.
Bishop-elect Sun is said to be in good condition at a guesthouse, but government officials are monitoring him.
The diocese has resisted Bishop Joseph Guo Jincai of Chengde, who was ordained without a papal mandate, being present at the ordination. Priests from the diocese have also insisted on reading out the papal mandate during Bishop-elect Sun’s ordination ceremony.
The government-backed Bishops’ Conference of the Church in China has not issued its approval so far.
Meanwhile, on June 29 a man will be ordained without papal approval for the Diocese of Leshan in southwestern China.
Bishop Johan Fang Xingyao of Linyi, president of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, will be the main celebrant in ordaining Fr. Paul Lei Shiyin.
Bishops Peter Faing JianPing of Tangshan and Paul He Zeqing of Wanzhou will be co-consecrators.
One expert said that in a complicated Church reality where the truth is often shrouded, the Vatican must keep pushing for the rights of Christians.
John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need said in comments to CNA that a June 23 report showing nearly half of Chinese Catholic dioceses are without a bishop is a sign of the hard reality for Catholics there.
“Nobody quite knows fully what is going in China but we would presume this report to be reasonably reliable and it shows, again, the extent to which the state is controlling the Church in China.”
“It also underlines the need for us to remain very concerned about the freedoms of the Church in China which should be allowed to govern itself and put the necessary structures in place to freely proclaim the Gospel,” he added.
The China Daily reported on June 23 that out of 97 dioceses, 44 are without bishops.
The news came as a conclusion of recent meetings of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church of China.
According to the report, Chinese bishops said that a lack of bishops has “seriously affected normal operations and church affairs at bishopless diocese(s).”
While neither the bishops’ conference nor the patriotic association is recognized by the Vatican, they are the only official voice allowed for Catholics in China in a state-controlled reality.
Association spokesman Fr. Yang Yu said they are looking to take “active and prudent” steps to address the problem.
Pontifex underlined the difficulty in knowing what the true situation is for the estimated six million Catholics in China.
“The reason we don’t know the full truth of what’s going on in China, especially as regards the Church, is that behind every apparent fact and statement lies a more complicated reality,” he said.
“The Vatican needs to continue to press consistently and clearly for rights and privileges to which the Church is entitled,” he said.
He pointed to problems that go well below the surface.
“If the official Church is being controlled in this way it begs the question as to the problems being faced by the underground Church. One can only presume that things for them are much worse.”
Alan Holdren and David Kerr contributed to this report.