VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI insisted Saturday on his right to ordain bishops as he consecrated a Chinese prelate in an implicit challenge to attempts by China's official church to ordain bishops without his approval.
Monsignor Savio Hon Tai-Fai, a 60-year-old Hong Kong prelate recently named to the No. 2 spot in the Vatican's missionary office, was one of five bishops ordained by Benedict in St. Peter's Basilica.
His elevation comes amid a new low point in relations between the Holy See and Beijing over the Chinese state-backed church's ordination of bishops without papal consent.
Benedict didn't refer specifically to China in his homily but insisted in general on the duty and need for the pope to name bishops to ensure apostolic succession. He said one of the key jobs of a bishop is to ensure that there is an "uninterrupted chain of communion" with the apostles.
"You, my dear brothers, have the mission to conserve this Catholic communion," Benedict said. "You know that the Lord entrusted St. Peter and his successors to be the center of this communion, the guarantors of being in the totality of the apostolic communion and the faith."
He added: "Only through communion with the successors of the apostles are we in contact with God incarnate."
China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951 shortly after the communist seizure of power. Although only state-backed Catholic churches are recognized, millions of other Chinese belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.
Dialogue has been used to ease tensions, but a main sticking point has been the Chinese church's insistence that it — not the pope — has the right to appoint bishops. It maintains that Rome's position amounts to interference in its internal affairs.
The sides had come to a fragile accommodation in recent years whereby Rome tacitly approved the bishops nominated by Beijing. But that appeared to break down late last year when the Chinese church ordained a bishop who did not have the pope's approval, a move it said it was forced to take because of a lack of response from the Vatican.
The frictions worsened after a meeting in December of about 300 bishops, priests and laymen in Beijing, at which Bishop Ma Yinglin — who is not recognized by the Holy See — was chosen as head of the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church of China.
The Vatican at the time condemned the meeting as a violation of religious freedom and human rights; there were reports that some prelates loyal to Rome had been forced to attend.
Hon was recently named No. 2 in the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. He has said he hopes to be a bridge between Rome and Bejing and that his high-profile appointment was a sign of the pope's love for China.
On Saturday, Liu Bainian, spokesman for the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, congratulated Hon and said there was no need for him to be a bridge since the Vatican and China already had a dialogue.
But in an interview with The Associated Press in Beijing, he said the church could improve relations between the two by respecting what he said were two conditions put forward by the Chinese government: "First, to sever the so-called diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognize the People's Republic of China as the sole legitimate government. Second, do not interfere in China's internal affairs, including in the naming of bishops," he said.
The Vatican has said it is ready "at any time" to switch its diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing.
Liu said Hon could help improve Sino-Vatican ties. "Bishop Hon is a Chinese citizen and has the responsibility to build the socialist country with Chinese characteristics together with the Chinese people and make contributions to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," he said.
During the solemn Mass, which began with a biblical reading in Chinese, the five new bishops prostrated themselves before the altar. The men then kneeled as dozens of bishops laid their hands on their heads in prayer. The five then received their pointed miter from the pope.
In addition to Hon, the other bishops ordained Saturday were: Monsignors Marcello Bartolucci, the No. 2 in the Vatican's saint-making office; Celso Morga Iruzubieta, the No. 2 in the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy; and Antonio Guido Filipazzi and Edgar Pena Parra, both of whom are Vatican diplomats.
Associated Press writer Henry Hou in Beijing contributed to this report.