Death of leader may signal change in China-Vatican relations

By Ecumenical News International
April 23, 2007

Chinese Catholic Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan of Beijing, who clashed with the Vatican by appointing non-approved bishops has died in Beijing, aged 76 years.

"The death of Bishop Fu is a national matter, more than a religious one," Hong Kong-based Franciscan priest Stephen Chan told ENI on 23 April 2007. "After his death, the government-sanctioned church may chose another person to replace him."

Francis Wong writes: The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association refuses to recognise the authority of the Vatican. Many Catholic lay persons and clergy, however, have stayed loyal to the church in Rome, something that has angered the Chinese authorities and has also resulted in [mistreatment] of those going underground for worship.

"Perhaps Fu's death will open a new chapter in the choice of a new pastor in Beijing who is more attentive to a harmonious society and more faithful to the Catholic Church," wrote Italian priest Bernardo Cervellera, who worked in China, and is now the editor of

Cervellera wrote of Fu: "A grand career in politics and in the Patriotic Association, total subjection to the ideology and the power of the Party and the Patriotic Association; adored by the regime, disliked by his flock. With his death one of the most painful chapters of the Church in China comes to an end and a new phase of greater dialogue between China and the Vatican is (perhaps) on the horizon."

Fu died of lung cancer at Beijing Hospital, after a long period of hospitalisation. Liu Bainian, vice-chairperson of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, said on 20 April: "Bishop Fu loved the nation and the church throughout his life, and was a respected leader of the church."

Bishop Fu was the chairperson of the government-approved church, and the acting-president of the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China, neither of which is recognised by the Vatican. He was ordained a bishop in 1979, without papal approval, at a time China was opening up to contact with Western countries after years of isolation.

In 2003 he was elected vice chairperson of the hand-picked National People's Congress, China's legislature, which prompted an anonymous China church person to question if Fu was "on the side of God or on the side of Caesar".

Veteran church observer Anthony Lam Sui-ki told Hong Kong media on 22 April that Fu "was a person who was given no choice under specific circumstances. The contribution he made, the mistakes he made, reflected how the church in China has gone through a difficult situation in the past decades."

The South China Morning Post newspaper quoted the vice-chairperson of the Patriotic Association saying that Fu's greatest wish was the normalisation of ties with the Vatican. However, he reiterated China's conditions for establishing diplomatic ties with the Holy See: severing relations with Taiwan and "not meddling with internal affairs", which China understands to include the naming of bishops.

Pope Benedict XVI has said he wants to improve communications with Chinese Catholics.

Diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Vatican were cut in 1951 after the Holy See recognised Taiwan. Beijing views Taiwan as an integral part of China.

The official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association has five million members but some church watchers say there are about 10 Catholic million faithful loyal to Rome.

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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