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Vatican signs provisional agreement with China on naming bishops

VILNIUS, Lithuania — For the first time in decades, Catholic bishops in China are in full communion with the pope, the Vatican announced.

Pope Francis lifted the excommunications or irregular status of seven bishops who had been ordained with government approval, but not the Vatican’s consent, the Vatican announced Sept. 22. A few hours earlier, representatives of the Vatican and the Chinese government signed a “provisional agreement” on the appointment of bishops.

“With a view to sustaining the proclamation of the Gospel in China, the Holy Father Pope Francis has decided to re-admit to full ecclesial communion the remaining ‘official’ bishops ordained without pontifical mandate,” the Vatican stated, listing their names.

The pope also included in the list Bishop Anthony Tu Shihua, who, before dying Jan. 4, 2017, “had expressed the desire to be reconciled with the Apostolic See,” the Vatican said.

According to the Vatican, Pope Francis hopes in regularizing the bishops’ status “a new process may begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics,” some of whom steadfastly have refused to participate in activities or parishes under the leadership of bishops not recognized by Rome.

In recent years, most bishops chosen by the government-related Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association have sought and received Vatican recognition before their ordinations.

Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin wrote in a statement that “the objective of the Holy See is a pastoral one: the Holy See intends just to create the condition, or to help to create the condition, of a greater freedom, autonomy and organization, in order that the Catholic Church can dedicate itself to the mission of announcing the Gospel and also to contribute to the well-being and to the spiritual and material prosperity and harmony of the country, of every person and of the world as a whole.”

The nomination and assignment of bishops has been a key sticking point in Vatican-Chinese relations for decades; the Catholic Church has insisted that bishops be appointed by the pope and the Chinese government has maintained that would amount to foreign interference in China’s internal affairs.

Catholic communities that have refused to register with the government and refused to follow government-appointed bishops commonly are referred to as the underground Church. Many communities, though, have bishops who were elected locally but who pledged their unity with and fidelity to the pope, which in effect meant they were recognized by both the government and the Vatican.

Vatican officials always have said that giving up full control over the nomination of bishops, though not what it wants, could be a good first step toward ensuring greater freedom and security for the Chinese Catholic community.

According to the Vatican, the agreement was signed Sept. 22 in Beijing by Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, undersecretary for foreign relations in the Vatican Secretariat of State, and Wang Chao, Chinese deputy foreign minister.

The Vatican neither released the text of the agreement nor provide details about what it entailed.

News reports in mid-September stated the provisional agreement would outline procedures for ensuring Catholic bishops are elected by the Catholic community in China and approved by the pope before their ordinations and installations.

Media reports in the days before the announcement indicated future candidates for the office of bishop will be chosen at the diocesan level through a democratic election system, and the results of the elections will be sent to Beijing for government authorities to examine. The government then would submit a name via diplomatic channels to the Holy See.

The pope will have the final word on the appointment of bishops in China, the report stated.

Although Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office, said the agreement is pastoral, not political, it is seen as a step in the long efforts to re-establish full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China. The two haven’t had formal diplomatic ties since shortly after China’s 1949 communist revolution.

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