In 1947 when Chiang Kai-shek was in power, Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang was ordained by the Vatican. Two years later (1949), Mao’s Communist Party seized power and set about jailing Christian leaders, driving out missionaries and dismantling churches. In 1954, when the atheist Communist Party formally severed ties with the Vatican, Bishop Shi was arrested for the first time. Then, for more than 30years, he was locked in a labor camp and forced to perform hard labor. When the decades’ long, savage Cultural Revolution ended, Bishop Shi was set free and ordained as bishop in China’s underground Catholic church in 1982.
People of faith are never free under the ruling of the Communist Party. Bishop Shi was imprisoned again in 1989 during the Chinese pro-democracy movement and the infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre. Four years later, Bishop Shi was “free” again, but Good Friday in 2001 became his last sunny day in this world. The Chinese government arrested Bishop Shi again on the trumped-up charge that his appointment as bishop was from Vatican instead of the Chinese Communist Party. In 2015, he died in prison, at the age of 94, half his life spent in jail and labor camps.
The story of Bishop Shi is representative of that of many Chinese bishops appointed by the Vatican – in and out of prison as part of life. In Wenzhou area where there is the largest Christian population in China, Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang was thrown in a labor camp for 16 years during the Cultural Revolution and again was imprisoned from 1982 to 1988. His position as bishop had been an attempt by the Vatican to appease the Chinese Communist Party – the Vatican had appointed Zhu, who was registered with the government, as bishop, and Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin as his coadjutor.
Under canon law, Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin was supposed to take over the diocese when Bishop Zhu died. Ironically, before Bishop Shao could take control of Wenzhou diocese, Chinese authorities arrested him in 2016. Again, the charge was his appointment from the Vatican. The Chinese Communist Party has been opposed to Bishop Shao because his appointment was recognized by the Vatican but not by the Party. This incident proves an axiom from Winston Churchill that “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
On October 30, 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that negotiators for the Vatican and Beijing reached a compromise on who selects Catholic bishops in China. Pope Francis seems to have achieved the biggest diplomatic feat in his papacy, for he “successfully” bridged this insurmountable divide between the Roman Catholic church and the Communist Chinese government. But, in so doing, the Vatican has relinquished its right to appoint its own bishops. In other words, the Chinese Communist Party decides who can be appointed as a bishop in China.
Pope Francis is doing his utmost to keep a successful dialog with the Chinese government. He has been careful to avoid criticizing China on religious freedoms or human rights. However, many Chinese Catholics feel they have been betrayed and they reject such compromise. Joseph Zen, the retired cardinal of Hong Kong, told the BBC that the Communist regime never changes its policies and all they want is a complete surrender. One Chinese woman bravely defended her faith, saying that if the Church in China could be led by the Pope without government interference, it would “make the faith more pure.”
But reality is that the deal accepted by Pope Francis makes our faith less pure. “The Chinese government says bishops must be appointed by the local Chinese Catholic community and refuses to accept the authority of the pope, whom it sees as the head of a foreign state that has no right to meddle in Beijing’s affairs.”* As Christians, we should never make concessions when it comes to our faith in Jesus Christ.
*Citation and photo from National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2016 https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/vatican-asks-beijing-positive-signs-help-dialogue