Amid ultimatums and threats to join the Patriotic Church, the Catholics who didn’t do so continue to resist CCP’s goal to take full control of all the dioceses.
The Diocese of Mindong in the southeastern province of Fujian has over 90 thousand Catholics, the majority of which, around 80,000, belong to what was known as the Underground Church. Until recently, the diocese was served by 57 priests that were not approved by the state. The signing of the Vatican-China Deal of 2018, however, has dramatically shifted the balance of power in the diocese, and the conflict continues to escalate.
As a result of the agreement, the two sides effectively recognized each other’s authority, the Chinese government interpreting it to the effect that all Catholics should join the Patriotic Church, while the Holy See is taking for granted the emergence of a “new” church that is loyal both to the Pope and the government.
Consequently, on December 13, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, a special envoy of Pope Francis, came to Beijing to “accept” the resignation of the Bishop of Mindong, Msgr. Guo Xijin, who was asked to continue serving as an auxiliary bishop. The previously Vatican-excommunicated Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, who is also a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), as well as vice-chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), and who was rehabilitated by Rome after the 2018 agreement, took over the diocese.
The matter of the application
The Chinese religious authorities continued to pressure Bishop Guo to join the CPCA. He refused to do so, stating that the content of the application to join contradicted the Catholic doctrine and demanded to modify it.
The application lists obligations and requirements for “official” Catholic priests, such as abiding by the state constitution and laws, obeying the management of the government and accepting the leadership of the patriotic organization, i.e., the CPCA, carrying out religious activities in accordance with laws and regulations, and accepting the principles of an independent, self-reliant, self-established Church.
Msgr. Guo insisted that Catholics could only obey the leadership of the state under the precondition that God’s commandments are observed and that the purity of the faith is upheld. He refused what he regarded as a betrayal of his faith even when threatened to be removed from his auxiliary bishop duties. On April 17, officials met with Bishop Guo and agreed to modify the application’s content.
The true intentions of this change of heart were soon exposed. The authorities refused to publicly disclose the content of the modified application that Bishop Guo has signed, actively publicizing only the fact of him signing it, to coerce other priests into joining the CPCA. When some priests also requested to modify their applications, the authorities refused to alter even a single word.
Even a retired priest in his 80s not spared
On April 22, all the non-CPCA priests in the Diocese of Mindong were summoned to a meeting in Ningde city, where they were once again compelled to join the Patriotic Association. Among them was a retired priest in his eighties who lives in a Catholic nursing home in Xitan town, under the jurisdiction of Fu’an city. He was forcibly taken to the meeting after he refused to sign the application for joining the CPCA two days before, when a group of officials visited him, threatening to destroy his church-run nursing home if he disobeyed.
The priest didn’t succumb to the threats, and the persecution continued. On April 26, about 80 armed police officers demolished the oratory of the church he used to serve in. The harassment took a toll on the health of the elderly priest, and he was hospitalized, still undergoing treatment.
Officials in charge of the persecution claimed that the orders to pressure the priest came from the central government, and pledged to continue their work until he signs the application. “As long as he hasn’t died, he has to sign the document. If he signs it, things will be fine. If he doesn’t, the nursing home will be demolished,” one of the officials said.
“We follow a different path from the CCP, this has always been a black-and-white issue,” explained a priest from Fu’an city. “The government wants to intervene in church affairs so that all churchgoers will conduct religious activities under its governance. Its ultimate goal is to make every person not believe in religion and only believe in Marxism-Leninism.”
Pressured but not defeated
According to one of the diocese’s non-Patriotic priests, 25 of his 57 colleagues had recently joined the CPCA, three had been intimidated into resigning, and one had been driven out of the diocese. The remaining more than 20 priests continue to resist and are therefore continuously pressured, in some cases, even tempted with bribes of up to 200,000 RMB (nearly $ 29,000), according to an AsiaNews report.
“The government unexpectedly allowed Bishop Guo to modify the application he signed. Most probably because on June 29, a ceremony for the newly-built church in the Diocese of Mindong will be held. The authorities want to have two bishops – the ‘above-ground’ and the ‘underground’ – to hold the mass together,” explained the priest. “Leaders from the central, provincial, and municipal governments will come to attend, so the government can take the opportunity to externally promote that the non-Patriotic bishop has now signed the application and is willing to obey the leadership of the CPCA and the government.”
The priest added that the government is using the case of Mindong Diocese to show to the outside world that the two churches have “united” under the leadership of the government and now work in unison.
To achieve this appearance of unity, in May, Fuzhou Public Security Bureau demanded that all remaining non-Patriotic priests sign the application prior to the unveiling ceremony for the new church on June 29. The Bureau also claimed that the central United Front Work Department has already issued an order to crack down on all priests who haven’t signed the application according to their requirements. Facing the CCP’s heavy-handed suppression, many priests say that they are prepared to resign and be arrested.
Joining the suppressed
Bishop Guo recently told his congregation that even greater difficulties still lie ahead. He said this is a test of faith for the clergy and church members alike. He asserted that he was willing to give up his position as auxiliary bishop and join the resisting priests to confront the government’s suppression.
According to a church member who requested anonymity, on May 24, Bishop Guo wrote a statement to retract his application of joining the CPCA, declaring it void. He sent it to the United Front Work Department of Fujian Province, the National Security Division of Ningde city, the Public Security Bureau and the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Fu’an city, as well as Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu.
In the statement, he writes, “My reason is simple: The government has decided to attack priests who haven’t signed the Application in accordance with their requirements. I have no ability to protect them. I’m ashamed to and not qualified to serve as bishop. All I can do is accept [sic] the suppression along with them.”
Bishop Guo Xijin believes that if the Diocese of Mindong model of coercion to join the CPCA is successful, the same will be promoted nationwide. Then, all the Catholic churches that were previously part of the Underground Church will be made to join the Patriotic Church. What the Vatican reaction will be remains to be seen.