BEIJING — A Catholic bishop has been released by Chinese authorities after a short detention, but they have ordered him not to officiate as a bishop while celebrating Mass because he is not recognized by the government.
Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of Mindong in China’s Fujian province was allowed to return home Tuesday, Asia News reported. The 59-year-old underground bishop, who is loyal to the Holy See, was detained Monday.
The bishop was taken away because the Catholic community had organized an early chrism Mass, an important Holy Week tradition that gathers together the clergy of the diocese.
Chinese police had taken Bishop Guo to prevent him from presiding at the Mass. Sources told Asia News that he had refused to concelebrate with Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, one of seven illicitly ordained bishops favored by the government.
Bishop Zhan has reportedly sought to reconcile with the Holy See but there has been no announcement that the Vatican has lifted his excommunication imposed for receiving an illicit ordination.
Last year Bishop Guo was detained ahead of Holy Week and similarly prevented from celebrating the chrism Mass, the first since his predecessor, Bishop Vincent Huang Shoucheng, died.
According to previous reports, the bishop was already not permitted by Chinese authorities to wear a miter or use a crozier. He can only wear a priest’s vestments.
The recent difficulties for Bishop Guo come as the Holy See attempts to negotiate an agreement with the Chinese government over the appointment of bishops.
In January, Asia News reported that a Vatican delegation asked Bishop Guo voluntarily to accept a position as coadjutor bishop under Bishop Zhan. This was also among the conditions Chinese officials had proposed to Bishop Guo during his 2017 detention.
Bishop Guo has said he would be willing to step down; if presented with an authentic document from the Vatican, “then we must obey Rome’s decision,” he said ahead of a February Mass at Mindong’s cathedral, The New York Times reported.
At the same time, he has warned that Chinese authorities seem unwilling to allow the Vatican final authority over the Church.
The Fujian province has about 370,000 Catholics and has a strong underground presence. Most of the approximately 80,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Mindong are underground Catholics, including about 50 priests and 100 nuns, UCA News reported.
The Church in China is split between an underground Catholic Church and the government-recognized Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Every bishop recognized by Beijing must be a member of the association. The Holy See is in negotiations with the Chinese government that could eventually lead to Vatican recognition of seven illicitly ordained bishops aligned with Beijing and to a more normal life for underground Catholics and their bishops.
In northern China’s Hebei province in early March, police detained Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo of Zhengding to prevent him from speaking with foreign journalists about the China-Vatican dialogue. The underground priests and Bishop Joseph Zhao, the apostolic administrator of Harbin in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, were rebuked and briefly detained.
In December 2017, the Holy See asked 88-year-old Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou in the Guangdong province to retire so that an illicitly ordained excommunicated bishop could take his place and be recognized by the Vatican, Asia News reported. However, the Vatican-recognized bishop reportedly refused the delegation’s request that he retire.
Even bishops in the Patriotic Association can be faithful to the Holy See, and they sometimes bristle against the association.
For its part, the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping is pursuing an effort to “Sinicize” religion. In his role as general secretary of the Communist Party, Xi called last October for “new approaches” to religious and ethnic affairs.
Recent changes mean control of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association will shift to the direct supervision of the Chinese Communist Party.
There are differences of opinion about the possible Vatican-China agreement between the bishops emeriti of Hong Kong. The outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen Zi-kiun strongly opposes the deal, variously characterizing it as a “surrender” or “suicide” that would damage the Church and put too much power in the hands of Chinese officials.
For his part, Cardinal John Tong Hon has voiced support for a proposed deal on how Catholic bishops are appointed, saying he believes the Chinese government has generally become more tolerant, and an accord would help bring further openness and unity to the Church.