November 29, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Bishop Vincent Guo was supposed to be the poster child of a successful rapprochement between the Vatican and China, as well as a sign that the longstanding rift between the Underground Catholic church and its state-run counterpart had been healed. Instead, he is on the run from the Communist authorities. How did this happen?
Until last year, Bishop Guo was the ordinary of the Diocese of Mindong, located in the southern province of Fujian. He was recognized by the Holy See, but not by the Party-State, which had imposed an unpopular—and unrecognized–Patriotic “bishop” by the name of Zhan Silu on the same diocese. While the Underground church was thriving—with 80,000 members, 57 priests, 200 nuns, 300 consecrated lay people and hundreds of lay catechists—the Patriotic church counterpart run by Msgr. Zhan boasted less than ten thousand members served by only 12 priests.
With the signing of the “provisional agreement” between the Vatican and China on September 22, 2018, the diocese was turned upside down–literally. The excommunication of Msgr. Zhan and six other invalidly ordained bishops was lifted by Pope Francis, and Bishop Guo stepped down as the ordinary of the Mindong diocese in favor of Bishop Zhan, and became his auxiliary.
AsiaNews reported that Pope Francis had actually asked for this “sacrifice” from Msgr. Guo the year before–in December 2017–in order to promote the “unity of the Church and guarantee the signing of the agreement between China and the Holy See.” In other words, Bishop Guo was demoted at Beijing’s request.
But even this wasn’t enough for the Communist Party officials who set out to enforce the new agreement. That agreement, they said, required all Underground priests and bishops to join the schismatic Patriotic Catholic Association as a condition of being allowed to continue their priestly ministry. Anyone who refused would not be allowed to function as a priest.
Bishop Guo, who apparently knew that the agreement said no such thing, refused to sign. As a result, he has been relentlessly harassed, threatened, browbeaten and even has “disappeared” for short periods of time. For most of the past year he has been under constant police surveillance, with two police officers assigned to watch him day and night. He recently managed to escape his handlers and is, of this writing, in hiding. When asked about him, one of his flock said, “Please pray for the safety of our bishop. He is very tired.”
While Bishop Vincent Guo may be, as AsiaNews puts it, the best-known “victim of the Sino-Vatican agreement”, he is by far not the only one. Nor is he the most harshly persecuted. Because the diocese of Mindong has been chosen by the Communist Party as a “model” for the implementation of the agreement, Bishop Guo and his priests have probably not been as badly treated as Underground bishops and priests in other parts of China, some of whom have simply gone missing or have been summarily “laicized” by the Party-State when they, too, refused to join the Patriotic Catholic Association.
While the provisions of the agreement remain secret, it reportedly deals with bilateral relations and the ordination of bishops. It does not call for Underground bishops and priests to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which remains in the eyes of the Vatican a schismatic creation of the Chinese Communist Party, but it does apparently acknowledge that Catholic clergy will be required to register with the Communist authorities. And that concession was all the Communist authorities needed to begin strong-arming Underground clergy into joining the CPCA as part of the “registration” process.
It took nine months—and countless pleas from Underground clergy—for the Vatican to formulate a response to this violation of the Sino-Vatican Agreement. The “Pastoral Guidelines” issued to bishops and clerics in China in June of this year, however, only added to the confusion.
First, the Guidelines imply that the decision to register with the authorities is entirely up to the individual bishop or priest in question, but since the Vatican has already approved such registration, on what grounds is a member of the Underground clergy to object when Communist officials come calling?
Second, the Guidelines, using oddly convoluted phrasing, suggests that, “if … the text of the declaration required for the registration does not appear respectful of the Catholic faith,” a priest may sign. But there is no “if” about it. Such “declarations” always require joining a schismatic organization, the CPCA, and therefore are always “disrespectful of the Catholic faith.”
Third, the Guidelines instruct a priest to “specify in writing” that he is signing the declaration “without failing in his duty to remain faithful to the principles of Catholic doctrine.” They add that, when such a written clarification “is not possible,” the priest may do so orally and “if possible” in the presence of a witness.
As one who has been arrested in China and forced to write a “confession,” I can personally attest to the fact that there is exactly zero chance that a beleaguered priest will be allowed to either call witnesses, amend the “declaration” in any way, or even openly declare that he disagrees with its contents. Reading such advice calls to mind a Chinese saying: “One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
In fact, the advice from the Vatican was so obviously unworkable that it led Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong to journey to Rome to lodge a protest with the Pope, who said that he would “look into it.”
It is hard to say what the Vatican has gotten in return for an agreement that Cardinal Zen openly calls a “sellout” of the Underground church. It is perhaps easier to say what it has not gotten. It has not gotten China to consent to the ordination of the roughly 20 bishop candidates identified by the Holy See within the Patriotic church, some of whom have already been secretly ordained. It has not gotten the Communist authorities to accept a significant number of bishops of the underground community. In fact, of the 40 or so underground bishops, only one has to date been officially recognized by the Communists.
As far as the future selection of bishops is concerned, candidates will be proposed by the Communist Party for ratification by the Pope. The Pope may veto one or two candidates, to be sure, but Communist officials have made it clear that he cannot indefinitely delay the process, nor continuously veto one candidate after another. If this happens the official implied, Party officials will simply return to illicitly ordaining bishops.
Pope Francis claims that this process preserves his authority. “The Pope names the bishops,” he has repeatedly asserted. Whether the ability to exercise a (temporary) veto power over the process actually does preserve papal authority not only for him, but for his successors, seems questionable, however.
No one should be surprised by this outcome. The only thing that the Vatican and the Chinese authorities seem to have in common is a belief that there should only be one Catholic church in China. For General Secretary Xi Jinping and his minions that means eliminating the Underground church. For the Vatican it means encouraging everyone (without explicitly saying so) to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which it seems to believe offers a safe, legal haven for Catholics to practice their faith.
But it doesn’t. The CPCA is merely an instrument that the Chinese Communist Party is using to bring all Catholics under Party control. The ultimate goal of the atheistic Communists who run China remains the same: to destroy all religious faith within China’s borders.
The Pastoral Guidelines state that the Holy See will continue negotiating with the CCP regarding the civil registration of bishops and priests. Bishop Guo Xijin commented that some Vatican officials have been very vocal about encouraging Chinese priests to join the CPCA, but have been very reserved when it comes to supporting underground priests as they fight to maintain their faith and principles. The Guidelines themselves are so vague that neither clergy nor laity are able to decipher its meaning. This vagueness has emboldened Communist authorities to boldly use not only the Sino-Vatican Agreement, but also the Guidelines themselves, to pressure priests into joining the CPCA. All of this puts Catholic conscientious objectors in a difficult, if not impossible, position.
“If before the signing of the Agreement we remained fearless and maintained our faith no matter how much we were coerced, the Holy See would have supported us, too,” the bishop said. “But now, we’re really helpless. To be frank, whoever persists will suffer greater suppression and persecution from the CCP.”
The road of persecution is still very long, Bishop Guo added, and Catholics must use it to strengthen their faith.
Bishop Guo is living out his words on his own long Via Dolorosa–as he tries to keep one step ahead of the Communist authorities.
Steven W. Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute and the author of Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to the World