BEIJING — The last time Pope John Paul II secretly named someone to the College of Cardinals was in 1979, when he chose Chinese Bishop Ignatius Kung, imprisoned by the Chinese authorities for more than 30 years because he refused to break ties with Rome.
When the appointment was finally revealed 12 years later--after former Shanghai Bishop Kung was safely in the United States--the enraged Chinese reacted by arresting Kung's successor as Shanghai bishop, Fan Zhongliang.
On Sunday in Rome, the pontiff selected two more secret cardinals under the rarely used procedure known in Latin as "in pectore"--literally, "in my breast"--employed to protect Roman Catholic prelates in politically dangerous environments. Church sources speculated that the two countries that meet this condition are China and Vietnam.
The Vatican revealed no specifics.
But among the likely candidates for the special papal consecration was Fan, who still lives in Shanghai under what overseas supporters describe as "strict surveillance." Like Cardinal Kung, 97, who lives in Stamford, Conn., Fan has refused to recognize the authority of the official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Assn. over that of Rome.
Since China severed ties with the Vatican in 1957, this country's Catholics, whom the government estimates at 4 million, have been caught in a seemingly irreconcilable schism between church and state.
Many of the country's churches, reopened after a period of violent religious persecution during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, are crowded with worshipers.
But the "underground" church, which refuses to break ties to Rome and the pope, also remains active with secret Masses and clandestine religious rites.
Joseph M. Kung, president of the Cardinal Kung Foundation--named after his uncle--said the Roman church now has more than 60 bishops in China overseeing 120 dioceses.
In his estimation, it is from among those "underground bishops" that the pope made his secret selection. "I am speculating," he said in a telephone interview, "but . . . such a choice by the Holy Father would be an expression of love and of his care for the Roman Catholic Church in China. "
Sources in Hong Kong and the U.S., where the underground church has activist supporters, said that other likely candidates as in pectore cardinals are underground bishops Su Zhimin, from the Roman Catholic stronghold of Baoding, 75 miles southwest of Beijing, and Zeng Jingmu, who was arrested in Jiangxi province in 1995 while holding Mass without permission.
Joseph Kung said at least four underground bishops are now imprisoned in China. Shortly before the U.S.-China summit in Washington in October, reports circulated that Bishop Su had been released from jail. But Joseph Kung insists otherwise.
Meanwhile, in another appointment certain to irritate the Beijing regime, the pope elevated a Taiwanese prelate, Paul Shan Kuo-hsi, archbishop of Kaohsiung, to cardinal. Shan, who was born in mainland Hebei province, is the third cardinal named in Taiwan since 1945. In the past, the appointments have irked the Chinese leadership, which considers Taiwan a renegade province.