China Appoints Bishop in State-Controlled Catholic Church

A cleric well regarded by the Vatican was installed as bishop of Beijing by China's state-controlled Catholic Church, a move that officials said should help ease tense relations between the communist nation and the Holy See.

Joseph Li Shan was appointed to the influential post in China's capital at a ceremony at the city's 400-year-old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Attendance was limited to several hundred priests, nuns, officials and ordinary Chinese Catholics invited by the Beijing diocese.

Dozens of uniformed police officers were positioned around the church, controlling access and keeping foreign journalists from entering the cathedral. Despite the security, the ceremony drew little public attention, with Catholics numbering more than 60,000 among Beijing's 15 million people.

The ceremony began with a processing of seminarians, nuns, priests and bishops, including ordaining prelate John Fang Xingyao of the eastern diocese of Linyi. Proceedings were broadcast to those outside via loudspeaker and closed-circuit television.

The 42-year-old Li took a traditional oath of service to the church that also added a nod to government authority. He promised to "lead all the priests seminarians and nuns of this diocese in adhering to the nation's constitution, maintaining national unification and social stability."

Li replaces Bishop Fu Tieshan, a Communist Party supporter and hard-liner toward the Vatican whose death in April provided an opportunity for the state-controlled church and Rome for rapprochement. When Li was named as Fu's replacement in July, Vatican officials praised him, though said Beijing had not consulted Rome before his appointment.

While publicly the Vatican did not comment on Li's installation, in recent days church officials have said it was done with Vatican approval. Liu Bainian, the vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the party-controlled body that oversees the church, said he "was not too clear" about the Vatican's stance toward Li.

But Liu said, such priests "should be encouraged, not condemned" and added: "We know that the pope loves China."

The appointment of bishops has long been a sticking point in the difficult relations between the Vatican and Beijing over the past half-century. The officially atheistic communist government dislikes groups that operate outside its control and has refused to yield authority over bishop's appointments, while the Vatican is loath to concede its traditional right to appoint church leaders.

Despite that, with the Vatican eager for greater access to China — where religious belief is booming alongside the economy — and Beijing keen for greater legitimacy worldwide, both sides have searched for a compromise. Many bishops in recent years were first named by China but then asked for and received the Vatican's approval — as church officials said was the case with Li.

Strains with the Vatican date to 1952 when the communist government, just three years in power, demanded Chinese Catholics cut ties to Rome. Banned for much of the 1960s and '70s when all religion was outlawed, the church has made a rapid recovery in the past 20 years, boasting about 12 million to 15 million followers.