Perhaps Catholics have a providential chance to promote unity in the Diocese of Shanghai and other parts of China

Elizabeth Lam, Hong Kong

Updated: August 12, 2020 12:36 PM GMT

The funeral of Bishop Anthony Tu Shihua of Puqi is held at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery on Jan. 10, 2017. (Photo: UCA News)

The Diocese of Shanghai on July 27 issued a circular saying that Catholic priests who officiate funeral prayers at the city’s Longhua Funeral Parlor should produce their identity cards to prove they are state-recognized priests.

Across the globe, a Catholic priest’s approval comes from the Church and its Sacrament of Holy Orders. But in China Catholics face an absurd situation. The recognition of priests come from the state administration that functions under the atheistic communist party.

Members of the underground church, who do not submit themselves to the state administration, are not eligible to use the Shanghai funeral parlor because their priests cannot enter it. But if some among them insist on using the parlor, they will have to seek the help of a priest from the state-approved open church.

For many who are unfamiliar with communist machinations, it is a simple issue of limited funeral options. They would say the underground Catholics can use other funeral parlors in the city or have funeral prayers at home. “What is the big deal?” they might ask.

However, it not easy for an underground priest to conduct funeral prayers in a Chinese home. Several regulations and restrictions prevent them from holding prayer rituals in the homes of Catholics openly and honestly. It deprives the deceased of their right to have a decent funeral and burial or cremation.

The notice is even more devastating from another point of view. It has stirred up the conflict between the underground and open Catholic communities in the diocese. The notice came from state-approved diocesan officials, and naturally the underground community is upset by it. But those who are angry about it are falling into the trap of the government.

The Department of Ethnic Affairs of Shanghai, a government agency, owns and manages the funeral parlor, the largest in Shanghai. But it did not issue the notice. The government forced the diocese to issue the notice with a clear aim to divide the city’s Catholic communities that were coming closer to each other.

Interactions between the groups have grown cordial over the years. They collaborated in the remembrance of Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-mei of Shanghai. They cooperated during the consecration of Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai, after which he announced his withdrawal from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

What reportedly prompted the notice is an incident in which both groups collaborated. Catholics from both groups attended the memorial service of an underground priest at the funeral parlor. It showed the two church groups are communicating and can collaborate when needed.

However, in an attempt to break this unity, the communist party first put Bishop Ma under house arrest and then put pressure on the open church bodies, creating divisions within the diocese. Even  the persecutions of 1905s, when Bishop Kung and some 300 Catholics were arrested and imprisoned, failed to weaken the diocese. It instead helped the diocese emerge as a model of unity for the Church in China.

Chinese authorities are bent on dividing the Church to weaken it. It is easy to see why underground priests refuse to join the open church. While forcing the underground church to join the open church, the communists seek complete submission from them.

The underground priests have to admit the “principle of independence and self-government” of the Church in China, which means accepting communist leadership of the Church. They also must agree to “self-selection and self-consecration” of bishops and sinicization of the Church. The submission can also mean the betrayal of other members of the underground church.

The authorities are trying to use the notice from Shanghai Diocese as a tool to split the Catholic community so that they can force them to complete submission to communists, tearing them away from their loyalty to the Vatican. If both groups of Catholics unite, the government will no longer be able to control it.

The notice, many people say, is a blow to the underground church. But perhaps it is a providential chance for Catholics to promote their unity in the Diocese of Shanghai and other parts of China.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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