May 7, 2006

China ordains bishop with papal blessing

By Benjamin Kang Lim

BEIJING (Reuters) - China consecrated a U.S.-educated
Chinese priest as an assistant bishop with papal blessing on
Sunday, just days after Pope Benedict condemned the unilateral
ordination of two bishops by Beijing.

The consecration of Father Paul Pei Junmin, 37, was held at
a Catholic church in Shenyang, capital of the northeastern
province of Liaoning, said Liu Bainian, a vice-chairman of the
Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

Pei, ordained a priest in 1992, was elected by fellow
priests, nuns and Catholic representatives in Shenyang in
February, garnering about 80 percent of the vote, Liu said,
adding that his election was endorsed by a college of more than
60 Chinese bishops in April.

Pei, who returned to China in 1996 after obtaining degrees
in Biblical study and theology from the Saint Charles Borromeo
Seminary in Pennsylvania, is tipped to eventually replace Jin
Peixian, 80, as the bishop of Shenyang.

Wang Qiuyue, a choir member contacted by telephone, said
thousands packed the church for the 2- hour ordination. A
priest who attended said at least 5,000 were present.

The Rome-based AsiaNews service quoted a Vatican source as
saying Pei had the Pope's approval and was "an excellent
candidate from all points of view." The Vatican was unavailable
for comment.

Beijing and the Vatican severed ties after the 1949
Communist takeover in China and the subsequent crackdown on

Officially atheist China has since traditionally refused to
allow the Vatican to appoint bishops or let Catholics recognize
the authority of the Pope, saying it would be interference in
its internal affairs.

But in recent years, Beijing and the Holy See -- warily
exploring the normalization of ties -- came to an understanding
that usually allows prospective bishops to seek Vatican
approval before taking up posts in the church.

There are some 10 million Catholics in China, divided
between an "underground" church loyal to the Holy See and the
state-approved church that respects the Pope as a spiritual
figurehead but rejects effective papal control.

In a move that threatened to undermine rapprochement
efforts, China consecrated a bishop in Wuhu in the eastern
province of Anhui and another in Kunming in the southwestern
province of Yunnan in the past week, drawing unusually harsh
criticism from the Holy See and Pope Benedict himself.

Liu defended the move by Beijing, saying the consecration
of bishops cannot wait until after the Vatican switched
diplomatic relations to China from Taiwan, a self-ruled
democratic island which Beijing claims as its own.

"Without bishops, there can be no dioceses," Liu told
Reuters. "Gospel spreading cannot wait until after the
establishment of diplomatic relations."

China has 97 dioceses, 42 of which do not have bishops, Liu
said. Most of China's bishops are old but he declined to say
how many will be consecrated this year.

Since 1958, Chinese Catholic churches have selected and
ordained about 170 bishops.

Bishop Jin, vice president of the college of Chinese
bishops, presided over Ma Yinglin's election as bishop of
Kunming, Liu said, adding that Ma 100 percent of the votes.

"Bishop Ma Yinglin publicly pledged his loyalty to the Pope
and his love for his country at his consecration on April 30
... but the final result due to political reasons was unfair,"
Liu said by telephone, referring to the Vatican's rejection and
threat to excommunicate Ma.

Liu blamed it on misunderstanding and urged the Vatican to
"actively improve its relations with China and improve its
policy toward China."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao dismissed
the Vatican's criticism of the appointments as regrettable and
unreasonable in a mildly worded statement.

China is sincere about mending fences with the Vatican, the
spokesman said. He urged the Holy See to sever ties with Taiwan
and not to interfere in China's internal affairs.