CHENGDE, China – China's government-backed Catholic church ordained a bishop who did not have the pope's approval Saturday, despite objections from the Vatican and comments by a key papal adviser that the move was "illegitimate" and "shameful."
The Rev. Guo Jincai's ordination at Pingquan Church in Chengde city was carried out amid strong security, with dozens of police blocking the building and denying entrance to reporters. But there was also an air of festivity, with colorful banners and traditional Chinese lanterns hanging outside the church and worshippers posing for photos.
China's first ordination without papal approval in almost five years threatens to hurt the officially atheist country's already shaky relations with the Vatican, and the Holy See had warned reconciliation efforts would be set back if bishops were forced to attend.
Eight Vatican-approved bishops participated in the ceremony, according to AsiaNews, a Vatican-affiliated missionary news agency that closely covers the church in China. Three of them, Monsignors Jei Junmin of Liaoning, Li Lianggui of Cangzhou and Feng Xinmao of Hengshui, had been sequestered by the government a few days ago to pressure them into participating, AsiaNews said, citing Chinese Catholic sources.
Communist China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, and worship is allowed only in state-backed churches, although millions of Chinese belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.
In recent years, under Pope Benedict XVI, relations have improved. Disputes over appointments in China's official church have been avoided by quietly conferring on candidates, leading to several ordinations of bishops with the Holy See's blessing.
However, Guo does not have the pope's approval and it was perhaps his role as deputy secretary of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the state-controlled group that runs China's Catholic churches, that raised Vatican concerns.
Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, said the Vatican knew about the need for a bishop in Chengde two years ago.
"I believe the pope loves China. I believe just a handful of people in the Vatican are hindering the improvement of relations," he said.
The Vatican had no immediate comment Saturday.
Liu had said attendance by bishops at the ceremony would be voluntary.
"A Catholic diocese cannot be without a bishop, or the Gospel cannot be spread," Liu said. "We should not let any political reasons interfere with the spread of the Gospel in China."
He said that in time, China would elect bishops for more than 40 Catholic dioceses that are currently without them and expressed hope that the Vatican would endorse them.
Guo's ordination is the first without papal approval since 2006, when three bishop ordinations in China drew Vatican criticism, said an expert at a Catholic research center in Hong Kong who declined to be named.
The move came ahead of a meeting to choose the leadership of the government-backed church.
Recent estimates by scholars and church activists put the number of Chinese Catholics loyal to the pope as high as 60 million — three times the size of the official church.
Hong Kong's Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, a key adviser to the pope, praised the Holy See for speaking out against the ordination as he arrived Friday at the Vatican for a meeting of cardinals to discuss religious freedom and other issues.
Zen, an outspoken advocate of democracy and religious freedom in China, has long been mistrusted by Beijing.
"It is really shameful, such an attempt to make another illegitimate ordination," Zen said. "It's against the whole civilization of today."
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.