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The Price of Loyalty February 01, 2004

Bishop Jia Zhi Guo, who heads the Zhengding diocese in Hebei province for the "underground" Catholic Church in China, reaffirmed his loyalty to the Holy See during a conversation with a Chinese Catholic layman. But in the January 2 conversation, the bishop also indicated concerns about tensions between the underground Church and the "official" Catholic Church recognized by the Beijing government.

With the Vatican reportedly moving closer to an agreement with the Chinese regime and the government-controlled Patriotic Catholic Association, some Catholics loyal to the underground Church have expressed severe concerns about the trend of the negotiations. Some complain that the Vatican gives public recognition to "official" bishops, but not to the bishops of the underground Church. Many fear that the Vatican is giving too many concessions to Beijing in the pursuit of diplomatic relations, and will not support the loyal underground Catholics.

One lay leader said: "The problem has still not been resolved: After the establishment of diplomatic relations, will the underground Church combine with the Patriotic Association, or will the Patriotic Association be folded back into the underground Church?" The lay leader predicts that Beijing would not allow the Patriotic Association to become part of the underground Church, since that would mean acknowledging the Pope as the head of the Catholic Church in China—a proposition that the Communist government cannot accept.

The discontent among underground Catholics has shaken confidence in the Holy See. One lay activist admitted, "I used to listen to Vatican Radio with excitement, but now I'm not interested in listening." Another went further: "My family has believed in the Catholic Church for generation after generation, but if the situation develops in this way, we'll still worship Jesus but we'll not believe in the Catholic Church."

Such militant opinions give rise to concerns that if the Vatican establishes diplomatic relations with China, and the underground parishes that have preserved their loyalty to Rome are merged with the Patriotic Association, some hard-line underground Catholics will resist the merger, and break off into their own splinter group. So instead of an underground Church dedicated to the Holy See, the merger might produce an underground Catholic sect protesting the Vatican's actions!

READY TO OBEY

The strong differences of opinion within the underground Church make Bishop Jia anxious. But he places his confidence in God, saying with a sigh: "Let's see how Jesus will lead his Church."

For Bishop Jia, the issue is quite simple. The Church belongs to Christ and the Pope is the current representative of Christ on Earth. So the bishop plans to follow whatever decision the Pope makes. He will obey without conditions.

Bishop Jia even says that he will not protest if the Pope's decision results in disbanding the underground Church, or removing him from his own episcopal office. He reminds listeners that obedience to the Pope is a part of the Catholic faith, and the Holy Spirit will preserve the Church from errors in teaching.

The simple virtue of Bishop Jia makes him attractive to many Catholics who are struggling to pursue the truth in a murky and confused situation. To lay activists who are trying to work for the future of the Church, he insists that their top priority must be their own personal sanctity. "Remember, if only you don't seek your personal interests, you will have success," the bishop tells them. He adds: "You must say morning and night prayers, and the Rosary every day, to purify yourself so that God can use you as his instrument."

The bishop instructs lay activists to keep foremost in mind that the main role in the Chinese Catholic drama belongs to God. "Man can do this or that," he says. "But in the end, the work will be finished by God."

Regarding the question of how to deal with the Communist government, Bishop Jia reasons that the primary goal of the underground Church should be to preserve the Catholic faith intact. The Beijing regime is a secular government, and the Church is not involved in secular political affairs. The government may profess an atheistic ideology, but that does not become an immediate concern unless the government tries to impose the atheistic ideal on the people and on the Catholic Church.

The bishop insists that when the government's policies conflict with the Catholic faith, loyal Catholics must choose without hesitation to uphold their faith. At the same time, he believes that the advent of a Communist government in China is part of God's overall plan. "Man often ignores the important fact that God is active in history," he says. "The Communist takeover was allowed by God. The Chinese bishops need to be purified through this historical occurrence." In the end, the bishop sees no inconsistency in saying that he will be unquestioningly obedient to the Pope in matters of faith, and at the same time obedient to the government regarding secular political issues.

WORK TO BE DONE

Bishop Jia expects the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China, and the restoration of unity between the underground Church and the Patriotic Catholic Association, in the near future. He hopes that the normalization of relations will lead to a more accurate understanding of the Catholic faith—especially among the government officials who deal with religious affairs.

The bishop mentioned his delight with the fact that some publishers—he mentioned the China Society Institute—have recently produced books that are specifically designed to introduce Catholicism, and Christianity in general, to a contemporary Chinese audience. He also expressed appreciation for the Chinese Catholic Scripture Study program, launched by the American Internet site Catholic Exchange (catholicexchange.com) The Chinese-language translations of the site's Scripture commentaries are "a great job," he said after visiting the site and reading the material carefully. "They're useful not only for laymen but also for priests and nuns.”

Bishop Jia, who has been arrested on multiple occasions and served many years in prison, now lives under severe restrictions; he is not allowed to leave the village of Wuqiu, where he now lives, and police visit him at home almost every day. But priests and laymen of his diocese are also able to visit him, to receive guidance and directives. The bishop's health is not good; an inflamed knee persistently inhibits his movement. Yet he went out on his bicycle to baptize a newborn infant in the village on the day that this reporter visited with him. Despite trials and uncertainties, the work of the underground Catholic Church goes on. [AUTHOR ID] Pan Zhen is a Catholic lay activist living in Beijing, the founder of Chinese Roman Catholic Laymen, a group dedicated to protecting the underground Church.

[SIDEBAR]

A SIGN OF PROGRESS?

A new Catholic bishop has been ordained in China, with the Beijing government grudgingly accepting the Vatican's choice.

Bishop Peter Feng Xinmao was ordained on January 6 as coadjutor bishop of the Hengshui diocese in Hebei province, the AsiaNews service reported. Bishop Feng is the first bishop ordained in China since the government-sponsored Catholic Patriotic Association ordained several new bishops without Vatican approval in January 2000.

The government-sponsored episcopal ordination, deliberately staged in defiance of the Holy See, marked one of the low points in recent relations between Rome and Beijing. The Chinese government, fuming over the canonization of a group of Chinese martyrs—regarded by the Communist regime as agents of Western influence—scheduled the ordination ceremony for January 6, the date when Pope John Paul would consecrate several new bishops in Rome. Vatican officials warned the Chinese Catholic bishops who participated in the Beijing ceremony that they risked excommunication for ordaining bishops without Vatican approval.

Bishop Feng was appointed by Pope John Paul II. After two years of discussions, the government finally accepted the papal choice, and the Chinese bishops' conference—which is officially recognized by the Beijing regime—gave its sanction to the nomination. AsiaNews reported that the selection of a bishop approved by the Vatican was the only realistic option for the Hengshui diocese, since the Patriotic Catholic Association has no following there.

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