Amidst weeks of tensions over the removal of church crosses in Zhejiang, China’s state officials have extended an olive branch to the Holy See by accommodating the Vatican’s wishes in the consecration of a new Catholic bishop in Henan province.
In Zhejiang province, now an area of robust Protestant growth, local officials have ordered the removal of crosses from the steeples of state-sanctioned churches. In response, both Catholics and Protestants there have initiated large-scale protests against government anti-christian crackdowns by carrying crosses in rallies and displaying them on their homes. A Protestant pastor and his wife, Rev. Bao Guohua and Xin Wenxiang, were recently arrested for “stirring social unrest”; they were among the protestors. According to a BBC report on the arrests in Zhejiang, “Christians have said the crackdown is an attempt to rein in the influence of Christianity”.
Wenzhou and Zhejiang, both predominantly Protestant, have suffered rising numbers of church destructions and cross removals in the past year, while in other areas Catholic communities have begun to experience improvements in state-Church relations. The Chinese have a vivid saying for the situation of Christians nowadays: “Reguo shang de mayi,” 熱鍋上的螞蟻 “It’s like being ants crawling on a hot wok.”
The proverbial wok has been less hot for Catholics than for Protestants in recent months. China’s Catholic bloggers have been busy writing about the recent consecration of Fr. Joseph Zhang Yinlin at the cathedral of Anyang, in Hebei province. Zhang was ordained coadjutor bishop of Anyang on August 4, 2015, with the full approval of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, and also with the full endorsement of the Party’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA).
Bishop Zhang’s elevation to bishop was the fist episcopal ordination in China since the election of Pope Francis, and it is the first such consecration in China without major disagreements between Rome and Beijing. Unlike previous consecrations, none of the presiding bishops at Zhang’s ordination was illicit; all of the bishops present were in full communion with the bishop of Rome. Vatican Radio reported optimistically that, the bishops at the liturgy were “all Vatican-approved and government recognized. Bishops not recognized by the Vatican were not present at the ordination”.
The official website of the SARA announced that Bishop Joseph Zhang Yinlin’s ordination was a great success: “From both inside and outside the province there were 75 priests, 120 nuns, and the faithful who attended the ceremony at the Diocese of Anyang [cathedral] totaled more than 1,500 people. The solemn ceremony was warm, peaceful, and orderly”. The article includes little of the previous rhetoric, which has normally been combative and assertive of the Party’s rule over all Catholic affairs in the country. For the first time in several years, the Vatican and China’s political leaders have agreed to operate collaboratively rather than antagonistically.
Bishop Zhang is a model candidate for both sides; he was born into an old Catholic family and is known to be solidly faithful to Church teachings and the Holy Father. But he also received his seminary training from the state-endorsed National Seminary in Beijing. Bishop Zhang is a loyal Catholic with a record of patriotism, who has risen to bishop without compromising his Catholic faith while also demonstrating his ability to navigate successfully the sometimes precarious waters of state mood shifts.
One priest of the Diocese of Anyang reportedly said, “This is a new beginning for our diocese.” The spirit among China’s Catholics is optimistic today, but their eyes have still not turned away from what is happening to their Protestant brothers and sisters in Wenzhou and Zhejiang, where the Cross of Christ is being removed and pastors are being arrested.
Another popular Chinese saying expresses the Catholic sense today: “Ru zuo zhen zhan” 如坐針氈 “It’s like sitting on a carpet full of needles.”
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