Shanghai’s Catholic Church in disarray

By Tom Phillips, Shanghai

The problems started on July 7 last year, when Thaddeus Ma Daqin,
Shanghai’s newly ordained auxiliary bishop, infuriated Party officials and
stunned congregants and clergy by using his ordination to renounce the
Patriotic Association, a Beijing-controlled organ that controls the
Chinese Church.

Worshippers had been left “shocked, grief-stricken and anxious overcome
with grief and dismay”, said Father Michael Kelly, the head of UCA News, a
news agency that covers Catholic issues in Asia. “It is the worst of

Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian priest who heads the Catholic
University of Leuven’s Verbiest Institute and has a long-standing
relationship with China’s Catholic Church said: “The confrontation may be
more sharp than [at any time] in the last 30 years. “[Shanghai's church]
has no shepherd leading the flock.”

Fearful of government retributions, those who work and worship within
Shanghai’s Catholic Church are reluctant to openly discuss the crisis
enveloping their community.

But one source in the city’s Catholic community said the diocese was
facing a “defining moment”.

“We don’t know what the government’s next step will be. We don’t know what
the church’s next step will be,” said the source. “Only God knows [what
will happen].” “It is really about power,” said the insider. “It is all
about control and a fear of Rome’s influence. We can be good Catholics and
good Chinese citizens. We love our country. But in this country you can
only love the country if you also love the Party. Many Chinese Catholics
love the country but not the Party.” The turmoil has revived memories of
the night of September 8, 1955, when Communist officials rounded up and
jailed Shanghai’s Catholic leaders, including Bishop Jin who would spend
18 years behind bars and toiling at reform camps.

After leaders were released from prison in the 1980s, the diocese went
from strength to strength, observers and church members say.

Bishop Jin took over as bishop in 1989 and is widely remembered as a
pragmatist who managed to advance the Church’s interests in China while
simultaneously keeping the Communist Party happy. Under his leadership, a
research centre and a shelter for the poor were opened and the number of
functioning churches rocketed from just a handful to more than 140.

Government figures place Shanghai’s Catholic community at around 150,000
people but clergy believe the true figure could be twice that.

Bishop Ma’s very public stance against Party control last July now risks
undoing decades of advances, some local Catholics believe.

Clergy seen as having close links to Bishop Ma have been thrown under a
shadow of suspicion and the ordination of priests has ground to a halt.
Two sources confirmed that the diocese’s German printing presses, imported
by Bishop Jin, had stopped functioning because the Patriotic Association
was refusing to approve new publications as a form of “punishment”.

“[Shanghai's Catholics] pray everyday for Bishop Ma’s release. They
support him and want him to come back. He is our shepherd and he has no
freedom,” said one church member.

“But what can ordinary people do in this country? The government is very
strong. The people cannot protest. They cannot shout.” Bishop Ma’s
decision to speak out enraged Communist Party officials and even within
the church it has provoked controversy.

Some believe that his move, while noble, has badly damaged the Catholic
community and several people who knew Bishop Jin said he had been left
“heartbroken” by the events of July 2012.

“Did Bishop Jin like that? I most certainly know that he didn’t,” said
Father Heyndrickx. “I spoke to him and he made it very clear that he was
very sad with what happened last July and the way it happened.

“The damage is enormous and could it have been avoided? I think so and he
thought so. He said very clearly he had told Ma: ‘Don’t speak about the
Patriotic Association. Don’t mention [it].’ To do that in such an open way
was totally unacceptable to the government.” The current predicament of
Shanghai’s Church reflects broader tensions between the Vatican and China,
an officially atheist country which cut diplomatic ties with Rome in 1951.
The two sides have been at loggerheads for decades over whether Chinese
Catholics owe their allegiance to the Vatican or to Beijing.

In the years leading up to 2010, negotiations between the two sides over
the appointment of bishops one of the biggest sticking points to improved
relations had appeared to be bearing fruits, church members and experts

However, since then at least four bishops have been appointed by the
Patriotic Association without the green light from the Vatican causing
talks to break down. The current crisis in Shanghai has aggravated the
situation even further.

“There is no quick solution to the present confusion,” said Father
Heyndrickx. “Before you can come to the type of dialogue that was going on
in 2008, 2009, 2010 you have to rebuilt trust on both sides and there is
no trust at the moment.”

Clergy say they are unsure whether Bishop Ma will eventually be
rehabilitated or forced to spend the rest of his life in isolation.

Officials from the Patriotic Association declined to be interviewed.

The Church source said priests and worshippers were now clinging to their
faith and hoping the crisis would trigger a “renewal.”

“We have to cherish hardship. We know that hardship and persecution give
us hope,” they said.

“If the Church had no challenges, it would be no Church at all. We are
Christians. We have faith. We can wait.”

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