Pope Francis has appointed Msgr Joseph Shen Bin as Bishop of Shanghai, in Mainland China, transferring him from the Diocese of Haimen, Jiangsu Province. In the following interview with Vatican Media, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin speaks about this decision and about possible developments in the dialogue between the Holy See and the Authorities of the People’s Republic of China.
Your Eminence, the Holy See announced the Holy Father’s decision to appoint Msgr Joseph Shen Bin as Bishop of Shanghai, shortly after the Bishop had already been transferred from the Diocese of Haimen. Why did all this take place and what does Pope Francis’ gesture mean?
In order to explain what happened, I think it may be useful to recall the precedents and circumstances surrounding the issue. As you may recall, the Provisional Agreement [between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China] on the appointment of Bishops in China was extended for an additional two years on 22 October 2022. About one month later, the Holy See had to express its surprise and regret over the news of the instalment of Bishop Johannes Peng Weizhao of Yujiang, as Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Jiangxi, which is not recognized by the Holy See, and without consulting or informing the Holy See. With regards to Shanghai instead, the Holy See was informed about the provision taken by Chinese Authorities to transfer Bishop Joseph Shen Bin of Haimen, but once again, was not involved. The decision to take some time before making any public comments on the case can be attributed to the need to closely evaluate both the pastoral situation of the Diocese of Shanghai which is recognized by the Holy See and which has been without a bishop for too long, and the opportunity of transferring Bishop Shen Bin, an esteemed pastor.
Both transfers took place without the Holy See’s involvement. This modus procedendi seems not to take into consideration the spirit of dialogue and cooperation that was established between the Vatican and China through the years, and which had found a point of reference in the Agreement. The Holy Father has in any case decided to mend the canonical irregularity that was created in Shanghai, in light of the greater good of the Diocese and of the fruitful exercise of the pastoral ministry of the Bishop. The Holy Father’s intention is fundamentally pastoral and will allow Bishop Shen Bin to work with greater serenity to promote evangelization and foster ecclesial communion. At the same time, we hope that in agreement with the Authorities, he may promote a just and wise solution to some of the Diocese’s other long-standing issues, for example, the position of two Auxiliary Bishops: Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who is still confined, and Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi, who is retired.
Respecting the confidentiality of the text, can you tell us what is provided for under the Provisional Agreement or at least if it addresses similar cases?
As is well known, the Provisional Agreement [between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China] on the appointment of Bishops in China, was stipulated between the Parties on 22 September 2018, with a validity of two years and was then renewed twice, the first time in 2020 and the second in 2022. The text is confidential because it has not been definitively approved. It revolves around the fundamental principle of consensus in decisions that have to do with bishops. Whenever seemingly new and unexpected situations arise, it will be a matter of trying to solve them in good faith and with foresight, re-reading more closely what is written and taking inspiration from the principles that guided the drafting. We are thus trying to clarify this point in an open dialogue and in a respectful exchange with the Chinese. Trusting in the wisdom and goodwill of all, we hope to reach positive conclusions that will be useful to continue the journey, overcoming all difficulties.
Do you think that unilateral transfers of Bishops in China will occur again? And why is it important that the appointment of Bishops in China be carried out with consensus?
First of all, I would like to say that the transfer of bishops from one diocese to another is not a canonical anomaly, but rather, a measure that falls within the “physiology” of the governing of the Church throughout the world, obviously when this is required by pastoral needs and ultimately, the well-being of souls. In China too, when a suitable candidate cannot be found in a vacant diocese, it is useful to expand the search radius. In this sense, the Holy See is not against the transfer of bishops in China. The problem would arise if this were to occur without consensus. In my opinion, the correct implementation of the Agreement allows for the avoidance of such difficulties. It is therefore important, indeed indispensable, that all episcopal appointments in China, including transfers, be made by consensus, as agreed, and keeping alive the spirit of dialogue between the Parties. Together, we have to prevent discordant situations that create disagreements and misunderstandings also within Catholic communities, and a good implementation of the Agreement is one way to do so, along with sincere dialogue.
Which other topics would it be important for the two Parties to discuss and why?
There are many topics that are in urgent need of being addressed because there are many complex situations and open issues in the Church in China. I will mention just three: the Episcopal Conference; communication between Chinese Bishops and the Pope; evangelization. First of all, the Holy See wishes to see an increase in the bishops’ responsibility in leading the Church in China, and this is why it is necessary to recognize, as soon as possible, an Episcopal Conference with Statutes that are suitable to her ecclesial nature and her pastoral mission. Within this context, the establishment of regular communication between Chinese bishops and the Bishop of Rome, which is indispensable for effective communion, in the knowledge that all this is part of the structure and doctrine of the Catholic Church, which Chinese Authorities have always said they did not want to change, is inevitable. Indeed, it should be noted that the all too many suspicions slow down and hinder the work of evangelization: Chinese Catholics, even those labelled as “clandestine”, deserve trust because they sincerely want to be loyal citizens and be respected in their conscience and their faith. So that the Gospel may be spread with its fullness of grace and love, bringing good fruits to China and for China, and so that Jesus Christ may “make himself Chinese among the Chinese”, it is necessary to overcome the mistrust of Catholicism, which is not a religion that is alien to — much less against — the culture of that great people. It will be a great joy for us when this becomes a reality and I confess that I personally pray to the Lord for this intention, every day.
How do you foresee the future of dialogue between the Holy See and the Authorities of the People’s Republic of China?
First of all, I would like to point out that if I accepted to be interviewed it is because the Catholic faithful, not only those in China, have the right to be adequately informed. Indeed, many requests have come to me from various ecclesial communities and from people who are sincerely interested in the topic. I therefore hope that my words may be of some use in this sense and may contribute to clearing and smoothing any difficulties. I am aware that the obstacles in the way of the journey undermine trust and detract from positive energies. Despite this, the reasons for dialogue seem to me to be even stronger. In effect, dialogue between the Vatican and China remains open, and I believe that it is a matter of a journey that is in some way forced. The fact that problems may arise is inevitable, but if this dialogue grows in truth and mutual respect, it can prove fruitful for the Church and for Chinese society. In order to make it more fluid and fruitful I think that it would be extremely useful to open a permanent office for communication between the Holy See and China. Allow me to add that in my opinion, this presence would not only foster dialogue with civil authorities, but also contribute to full reconciliation within the Chinese Church and to her journey towards a desirable normality.
The service — inspired by the Gospel and not by economic and political interests — that the Church, precisely because she is Catholic, offers to people and their human, spiritual and material progress, is within view of all honest observers. As Pope Benedict xv underlined in his Letter Maximum Illiud, on 30 November 1919: “The Catholic Church is not an intruder in any country; nor is she alien to any people”. I too wish to highlight that the Catholic Church still has much to offer China, and that China has much to offer the Catholic Church.
Lastly, we have signed an Agreement that can be described as historic, but one that needs to be implemented in its entirety and in the most correct way possible. Today, in the crucial moment of implementation, we need goodwill, consensus and cooperation, which allowed us to make this farsighted pact! The Holy See is committed to doing its part to ensure that the journey may continue.