.- Bishop Francis An Shuxin has left the underground Catholic Church in China to join the government-sanctioned church in what he says is an effort to work for unity and reconciliation.
The Vatican-approved auxiliary bishop of Baoding was recently released from more than 10 years of house arrest and is now residing in Anzhuang.
He told UCA News Sept. 6th, that he has now gained the government's recognition of his position as a bishop and is permitted to do pastoral work openly under the government-approved Church. However, he said he has not joined the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
The 57-year-old prelate said he decided to join the open Church in order to work toward "communion and development" of both Church communities. Bishop An said that in his view the Vatican supports such moves toward reconciliation.
The Vatican has made no official statement on the decision of the bishop but is reportedly in talks with Chinese officials to bring about greater religious freedom in the country. Currently, only members of the underground Church profess their allegiance to the universal Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Members of the open Church and Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association practice their faith under a government imposed hierarchy, not approved by the Vatican.
The bishop was released from house arrest Aug. 20, a few days after he agreed to the demands of the local government to concelebrate mass with other government-sanctioned clerics. About 700 Catholics attended the mass. Of the seven priests, three were formerly from the underground community.
"If both sides don't achieve reconciliation in the sacraments, our talk about reconciliation is just empty words," Bishop An told UCA News. He said he regretted not realizing the importance of communion earlier.
Leaders of Baoding's open-Church community said they welcomed Bishop An joining them, but that full reconciliation is still a distant dream.
Fr. Joseph Yang Yicun, a concelebrant, told UCA News Aug. 29 that the Mass was offered for unity and solidarity. The congregation warmly welcomed and applauded Bishop An, he noted.
Meanwhile, some open Church priests remain cautious. "Baoding's present situation is complicated," remarked a parish priest, who refused to be named. "Although many people yearn for reconciliation, I have no idea how it would work out."
Many hold that true reconciliation can not be achieved until full communion is allowed by the China.
Baoding has been a stronghold of the underground Church, which has about 80 priests, 100 nuns and about 100,000 Catholics. The open Church community in Baoding has one bishop, 15 priests, about 10 nuns and 10,000 Catholics.
A former underground priest, who joined the open Church in 2005, told UCA News Sept. 6 that Bishop An's decision to join the open Church has not been accepted by the underground community.
"No matter how many people object to us, we insist on following the papal instructions for reconciliation," the priest reportedly said. He said he hopes the underground community will understand the need for reconciliation and work together for better development of the diocese.