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MINDONG, Fujian, China, December 17, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – A Chinese Catholic bishop is ceding his office to a formerly excommunicated, government-approved cleric at the request of Pope Francis, according to several news reports.

The demand for two underground, legitimate Chinese bishops to cede their offices to two formerly excommunicated, government-approved clerics came from Pope Francis, AsiaNews is reporting, and it was made so that the Vatican’s recent controversial deal with China’s communist government on the appointment of bishops could gain approval.

Francis asked as a gesture of obedience “and of sacrifice for the general situation of the Chinese Church,” that Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin, the bishop of Mindong recognized by the Vatican – but not by the Chinese government – and until now the ordinary of the diocese, relinquish his position to Vincenzo Zhan Silu, the report said.

AFP and The Daily Beast reported that Xijin agreed to step aside. The former quoted Guo as saying he will remain an auxiliary bishop.

Zhan is recognized by the Chinese government, and one of the seven previously excommunicated bishops whom Francis has re-admitted to communion.

The decision to hand over the two ordinary positions occurred a year ago, and came from the pope himself, the AsiaNews report said, “Because otherwise the [sino-vatican] agreement cannot be signed.” Francis feared that without the agreement on episcopal appointments, the Chinese Church would be invaded by dozens of illegitimate bishops, with grave consequences for unity in the Chinese Church.

The news of the request coming right from Pope Francis dispels questions as to whether it came from any of his advisors.

The authentic Catholic Church, headed by Holy See-approved bishops, is known as the underground Catholic Church in China. The communist government runs the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CCPA), whose bishops are generally referenced as “official” bishops.

Guo met in the last several days in Beijing with Zhan and with Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of a Vatican delegation.

At the meeting, Celli gave Guo a letter signed by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples), in which they asked the bishop to give his role as ordinary over to communist-approved Zhan. 

Celli reportedly told Guo at the meeting the request for his “sacrifice” for the Chinese Church came directly from the pontiff.

Word of the pope’s demand came through one of Guo’s diocesan priests, a group of whom Guo gathered Wednesday afternoon after his Beijing trip to inform them that he will now be auxiliary bishop.

The news has saddened many among local priests and lay faithful, the AsiaNews report said. And the handling of Guo and Zhan ran contrary to similar past situations.

Previously when an official bishop reconciled with the Holy See in a diocese where there was an underground bishop, the underground bishop remained the ordinary, while the official, newly reconciled bishop became the auxiliary.

Furthermore, in Mindong’s case there is a great imbalance in attendance between the underground and official churches.

Of the more than 90,000 members of the Mindong diocese, some 80,000 belong to the underground Church, and are served by 45 priests, 200 nuns, 300 consecrated laywomen, and hundreds of lay catechists.

Zhan, however, accounts for only some members among the faithful, and 12 priests who serve in different parishes.

The pope also expressed great appreciation for Guo, AsiaNews was told, and he asked Guo to personally continue providing pastoral care for the underground parishes, but to also establish working integration with Zhan.

Additionally with the new arrangement, in order to be able to perform his episcopal ministry openly, Guo needs the approval of the government and the Council of official Chinese bishops.

At the same meeting, Celli announced that the underground bishop of Shantou, Pietro Zhuang Jianjian, will give up his position to the communist-backed bishop Giuseppe Huang Bingzhang, also recently reconciled with the Holy See.

It was noted in the report that the meeting between Celli and the two Mindong bishops took place at Diaoyutai, one of the Chinese state hotels for official guests.

The decision to hand over the ordinary positions to the two “official” bishops was much appreciated by the Chinese government, the report said, and made last year with another trip by Celli to Beijing.

Francis released a September 26 letter on the Vatican-China deal, the specific details of which have been kept hidden.

In the deal, the pope purportedly will still be acknowledged as head of the Catholic Church, but the Chinese government will appoint bishops, with the pope retaining only a veto in the appointments. The Vatican had also agreed to admit to communion and consecrate seven of the Chinese Communist Party’s bishops.

The Vatican-China deal has been roundly denounced as a betrayal of Chinese Catholics who have suffered under the communist regime for years.

While the Vatican has acclaimed its deal with the Chinese government as a positive step forward for the Catholic Church in that country, reports persist of the destruction of church buildings, and clergy who have resisted joining the government-run CCPA have suspiciously disappeared and undergone periods of detention for indoctrination. 

Children under 18 years of age are barred from entering churches for religious services, and China has banned the sale of Bibles online.

Last month Chinese police took Wenzho Bishop Pietro Shao Zhumin into custody for interrogation and indoctrination for the fifth time since Pope Francis appointed him bishop in 2016.

Guo was taken into custody prior to being asked by the pope to step down as well.

Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen said in a recent interview that the agreement “indirectly” equates to the Vatican “helping the government to annihilate the underground Church that Beijing was not able to crush.”

Some Mindong priests point out that with this move after 40 years of existence the underground Church will die, the AsiaNews report said, while others commended the tremendous obedience exhibited by Guo.

Still other priests said the Vatican has relegated the Church into the hands of the government.