By Father Huabei
As in the days of Chairman Mao, appearances and non-appearances at events or in photos are always considered highly symbolic when seeking to interpret the rise or fall of an individual in the pecking order.
Fact is always hard to establish because no particular actor will confirm or deny the reason for appearances or disappearances, rises or falls in favor.
What is indisputable is that Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi of Shanghai has been sidelined. The Shandong-born Xing was picked as auxiliary to Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian in preference to any Shanghai candidates. Once expected to succeed the 95-year-old Jin, Xing seems to have fallen from favor, perhaps for a short while or perhaps permanently.
His troubles began in December 2010 or perhaps since he became bishop.
It’s “the case of the disappearing bishop” in Shanghai. But rather than asking where he is, the real question is “what does the disappearance mean?”
Catholic circles in China are buzzing with rumors about Xing, who has not been sighted since last month.
On December 10, 2011, he could have substituted for Bishop Jin at a priestly ordination. It was postponed due to Bishop Jin’s fall and hospitalization.
Then Bishop Xing did not appear for Christmas Mass and in the week before Christmas, Bishop Jin appointed a priest in his 40s, Father Thaddeus Ma Daqin, as vicar general of the diocese.
The Eighth National Congress of Catholic Representatives was held against the wishes of the Vatican in December 2010. The first pictures of the congress on the official TV news report prominently featured the image of Xing.
The authorities seemed to believe that as long as Xing was present, the congress was half way to being claimed as a success.
However, the success gained from the obedience of Xing to Bishop Jin’s request that he attend was countered by the “absence” of Bishop Joseph Li Liangui of Xianxian.
During the congress Xing was criticized for his “three NOs.” He did not wear the bishop’s soutane, did not put on his zucchetto and did not show any supportive stance to the congress.
Even though he went to Beijing, it was considered that his uncooperative attitude showed contempt for the patriotic coalition comprised of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) and the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, neither of which is recognized by the Vatican.
In fact, while Bishop Jin is honorary president of the coalition, such contempt for it is normal in Shanghai.
The coalition has a history of tension with the Shanghai diocese since the era of Anthony Liu Bainian, Beijing-based vice-chairman of CCPA 1992-2009.
Bishop Jin is the leader of Shanghai diocese’s “open” community. He once criticized Liu to his face: “The Church in China became chaotic because of you!”
Xing was picked to be auxiliary bishop in these circumstances. Considered an upright son of Shandong, Xing shares the fear and dislike that others in Shanghai are held in by officials of the patriotic coalition.
On a working visit to Shanghai in October, CCPA vice-chairman Liu Yuanlong visited Bishop Jin. Shanghai’s religious officials welcomed Liu’s visit. But only local CPA staff appeared to receive him.
This was strong contrast to similar visits in other provinces and cities. Moreover, a scene without clergy does not look good for the government-sanctioned open Church community.
It is not surprising that Bishop Xing was believed to be an unlikely candidate to succeed Jin.
Three reasons are given for this: He is a headache for religious officials and the government dislikes him. He is stubborn and weak in interpersonal relationships. His temperament has been questioned by others and is seen to not support the harmony of the diocese.
But these reasons do not completely explain Xing’s sudden disappearance.
There is a parallel in the recent case of Bishop Li of Xianxian. After he was rumored to have retired in mid 2011, gossip spread about a scandal involving the bishop that looked likely to stir up disputes in the diocese. But all his priests united behind him and tension evaporated.
If Bishop Xing of Shanghai has come under pressure, it will be a test of the character and strength of the Shanghai diocese.
Fr Huabei is the pseudonym of a priest in northern China who used to live in Shanghai.