BEIJING – China's state-approved Catholic church welcomed the installation Sunday of a third bishop who has not been approved by the pope, exacerbating Beijing's already strained relations with the Vatican.
Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu celebrated Mass for 500 Catholics and Chinese officials in a church in the southern city of Ningde to mark his formal appointment as head of the Mindong Diocese. Hong Kong Cable TV showed Zhan holding a gold staff and wearing the white pointed hat, or miter, used by bishops.
The welcoming ceremony, however, compounded deteriorating relations between the Vatican and China. Just a few months ago, Catholics hoped that back-channel communications and concessions from the Vatican would end a rift between the Vatican and a separate Chinese church set up by the Communist government a half-century ago.
In recent weeks, China's state-approved Catholic hierarchy appointed two other bishops without papal assent, drawing a threat of excommunication from the Vatican and re-aggravating the split.
"They had to know that this would cause a serious reaction, a breakdown in the efforts to normalization," said Richard Madsen, an expert on China-Vatican ties at the University of California-San Diego. "This shows at some level, they just didn't want relations to go forward."
In the fallout, the Vatican put on hold a review of Zhan's appointment that could have led to his approval by the pope, a church official in Hong Kong said on condition of anonymity because of his involvement in the Vatican-China dialogue.
A senior official in the state-backed agency that administers Catholic churches, Liu Bainian of the Patriotic Catholic Association, dismissed the criticisms over Zhan, saying the ceremony was planned long ago.
The Vatican declined to comment on Zhan's installation.
After coming to power in 1949, the communists set up a state-backed Catholic church outside the Vatican's authority, forcing Catholics to divide their loyalties. While some of China's estimated 10 million to 14 million Catholics shun the state-approved churches and others dislike the "underground" ones, most Catholics and clergy circulate between both worlds.
Zhan's situation underscores the stakes for Beijing and the Vatican. The Mindong Diocese, in the southern province of Fujian, has over 60,000 Catholics, but only 10,000 worship in state-authorized churches, according to Catholic Church estimates in Hong Kong.
That has led to parallel church structures, one serving the independent or underground Catholics, the other serving the Beijing-approved church. The larger community of independent Catholics already has a bishop, an elderly cleric, Huang Shoucheng, approved by the Vatican in August, the Hong Kong church official said.
Zhan became the state-approved bishop of Mindong a year ago when his elderly predecessor died. But the appointment was not publicized, Zhan said in a telephone interview, and Sunday's ceremony was arranged before the recent ordinations to mark his formal welcome to the diocese.
The controversy and the attention on him, he said, made his job as bishop more difficult.
"I don't think I'll be faulted for celebrating Mass, but after this issue has blown up, some followers may start wondering. This isn't helpful to the work of a bishop," Zhan told Hong Kong Cable TV.
Most bishops in China have quietly received papal approval, often before their appointments, through behind-the-scenes consultations between Chinese churches and the Vatican.
Zhan, however, was a divisive figure even before his recent promotion. In 2000, he was among five clerics ordained as bishops in a ceremony that was not authorized by the pope and that ended a brief rapprochement between the Vatican and China.
Named an assistant bishop in Mindong, Zhan avoided controversy. Not approved by the pope, he did not ordain priests, perform confirmation services or conduct other religious duties that bishops perform, the Hong Kong church official said. He said that helped Zhan's application for formal approval, twice submitted to the Vatican but now on hold.
"China-Vatican relations now depend on the wisdom of the two sides," Zhan said in the telephone interview. "I hope to see some improvement in relations."