BEIJING – China named a U.S.-educated Catholic bishop Sunday with apparent papal approval, just days after it carried out two unauthorized ordinations that the Vatican said seriously wounded the church and evoked “profound displeasure.”
The Rev. Paolo Pei Junmin emerged from Nanguan Cathedral in Shenyang, the largest city in China’s northeastern rustbelt, wearing a gold robe and a white miter after a two-hour ordination service.
Pei, 37, studied theology in the mid-1990s at a seminary in Pennsylvania, and is reportedly a likely successor to Jin Peixian, the 80-year-old bishop of Shenyang.
Pei’s ordination was the latest in a roller-coaster ride of actions in the past year that first built – and more recently dashed – hopes of a rapprochement between Beijing and the Vatican.
China’s atheist Communist Party severed ties with the Vatican shortly after the 1949 revolution that brought it to power. China rejects Vatican authority over the nation’s 10-to-12 million Catholics, some of whom worship in state-sanctioned churches. Others worship in clandestine churches loyal to the Holy See.
The Vatican-affiliated AsiaNews agency quoted an unnamed Vatican source as saying Pei was “an excellent candidate from all points of view,” and that he had received approval from Pope Benedict XVI, who has stated his hopes to travel to China.
Pei, ordained in 1992, was among the first Chinese priests sent abroad to study. He obtained degrees in Biblical studies and theology from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia.
and returned to China in 1996. He met Pope Benedict last August during a trip to the Vatican.
China’s state-sanctioned churches operate under the control of the party-run Catholic Patriotic Association, which many underground Catholics see as a divisive force in their faith.
China’s government news agency Xinhua said Sunday that Beijing “regrets the criticism from the Vatican” over the ordination last week of two other Catholic bishops. Their ordination triggered a scathing warning from the Vatican that the two might face its worst possible punishment – excommunication, or banishment – from the church unless they were coerced into accepting the posts.
“The Vatican’s criticisms of the Chinese Catholic churches were unfounded and were in disregard to their history and reality,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told Xinhua. An unnamed spokesman for the State Administration of Religious Affairs on Saturday defended the bishops ordained last week – Ma Yinglin in the city of Kunming and Liu Xinhong in Wuhu – as figures of “solid faith and moral integrity.”
Until the government’s bishop naming, several factors fueled hopes in the past year for normalized China-Vatican ties.
Faith in Marxism, once widespread in China, has collapsed, and the nation’s leaders, while still atheist, endorse “freedom of religion,” even as imprisonment of underground clergy and worshipers remains frequent. Moreover, some analysts say Beijing is eager to have the Vatican sever diplomatic ties to Taiwan, which it claims as a renegade province, and re-establish ties with China.
China reiterated last week that the Vatican must terminate relations with Taiwan and promise to “not interfere in China’s internal affairs” if it wants normalization.
For its part, the Vatican sees huge potential in China, a nation where many citizens feel a spiritual void following decades of tumultuous change.
China was stung in February when Pope Benedict named among new cardinals Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, an outspoken critic of Beijing.
Last week’s unauthorized ordinations may be a sign of its displeasure. Typically, ordinations have occurred after informal consultations between Beijing and the Vatican, and quiet papal endorsement.
Apart from its pique over Cardinal Zen, China is in dire shortage of bishops. Of China’s 97 dioceses, 42 do not have bishops, and many of those who remain are elderly. The Vatican worries that China may seek to consecrate as many as 20 new bishops in a series of unapproved ordinations.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.