Vatican group in China as ties warm up

By Li Ruohan and Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/16 21:48:40

Mindong diocese’s changes seen as new model for two sides: bishop

Pope Francis blows a candle on a birthday cake given to him during an audience with children and families of the Santa Marta dispensary, on Sunday at the Vatican. Francis turns 82 on Monday. Photo: AFP

 A Vatican delegation's visit to China last week achieved progress and has brought both sides closer despite the absence of diplomatic ties, Chinese bishops said.

"The delegation's visit has made progress and the Vatican side said they will soon visit China again to further implement the details on bishop appointments," Bishop Fang Jianping, deputy head of the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China, told the Global Times on Sunday.

Holy See press office director Greg Burke told the Global Times in an email on Friday local time that the delegation was in China for talks with both "government and church officials."

They were expected to work on "practical steps" to implement the recent provisional agreement, Burke said.

The details of the provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops have not been made public since the agreement was signed in September.

The delegation also brought mandates for the seven Chinese bishops they acknowledged in September, Fang said. 

The seven bishops met the delegation in Beijing on Wednesday, Bishop Huang Bingzhang, who attended the meeting, told the Global Times on Saturday. 

"The meeting with the bishops is more than just a courtesy call. Some specific issues were discussed," said Huang, who declined to elaborate. 

The September agreement only granted the title of the seven bishops while the mission this time is to determine their diocesan assignment, as well as their duties and responsibilities in the dioceses, Wang Meixiu, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Saturday.  

Procedures on whether and how to acknowledge the bishops not recognized by the Chinese government will also likely be discussed, Wang said.  

Meanwhile, the election or appointment of bishops in dioceses with vacancies would likewise be discussed, Wang added.  

Among the 98 dioceses in the Chinese mainland, 40 of them are without bishops, Bishop Guo Jincai, secretary-general of the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China, said in an earlier interview with the Global Times in March.  

Among the 61 bishops, 12 are over the age of 80, making the appointment of bishops an even more pressing issue, Guo said.  

'Normal change'

Bishop Zhan Silu, who is from the State-sanctioned church and among the seven bishops recognized by the Vatican in September, will be the diocesan bishop in Mindong, East China's Fujian Province, attendees at the Wednesday meeting confirmed with the Global Times.  

Guo Xijin, the underground bishop of the diocese of Mindong, has accepted the role of auxiliary bishop, Guo Xijin told the Global Times on Friday, after meeting the Vatican delegation.  

The underground and State-sanctioned churches in the diocese of Mindong will merge, Guo Xijin said.

The understanding of an underground bishop "stepping down" for a government-sanctioned bishop is wrong, said Huang, who referred to the adjustment as a "normal change of position" as a result of the practical needs of church affairs. 

The change could be a "new model" for the two sides and should be accepted with more goodwill, Huang noted. 

The ongoing talks show that the two sides are moving in the right direction and that China's Catholic churches are reconciling, which is also in accordance with the Chinese government's expectations that the church contribute to social stability and unity, Wang said. 

The Vatican delegation's visit also improved the two sides' relations, Fang said.

"We all expect more good news and the Vatican side has shown much sincerity," he said.

"However, it is still too early to predict whether diplomatic relations are possible at the current stage, as it will take a long time to fully address the religious issues, and diplomatic relations are not a pressing issue," Wang said. 

The Holy See press office has not replied to questions about whether the delegation's mission includes discussions on establishing diplomatic ties or a possible visit to China by Pope Francis.

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