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Beijing names a bishop, testing pope's new olive branch

July 19, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Less than three weeks after Pope Benedict XVI issued a conciliatory letter to Chinese Roman Catholics, the state-controlled diocese of Beijing has selected a little-known parish priest as its next bishop. The decision offers the first test of the Vatican's new willingness to work with the government on clerical appointments.

Father Joseph Li Shan was elected bishop Monday by a group of priests, nuns and lay members of the official Chinese church, according to UCA News, an Asian Catholic news agency. If approved by the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church of China, he would take the seat left vacant by the death in April of Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan.

Sister Janet Carroll, a China expert with the U.S. Catholic China Bureau, said that in selecting Li, the officially sanctioned church had picked someone who was the opposite of Fu, whom she described as "very politically oriented" and "by the end ... extremely compromised."

Fu did not have the approval of the Vatican. It is unclear whether Li will.

China's Catholic Church has been split since 1951, when the communist government, which remains officially atheist, ordered Catholics to cut ties with Rome. Since then, they have belonged to either the official church, whose leaders have been government-sanctioned, or to an underground, pro-Vatican church whose members have faced harassment and arrest.

China is wary of any organization that might challenge its one-party rule, having watched with alarm the role the Catholic Church played in weakening communism in Poland in the 1980s.

In a June 30 letter to China's estimated 12 million Catholics, Benedict urged reconciliation between the underground and official churches and revoked rules that had banned all contact since 1988 between the Vatican and the official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Assn. He also said that priests and bishops approved by the state could seek consecration from Rome and that the Vatican would be willing to negotiate with the government over the appointment of bishops.

The Vatican was silent Wednesday on whether it had discussed Li's selection with government officials in advance of his election or whether it was likely to approve his appointment before his ordination, expected in three months.

Those who closely follow Chinese Catholic matters said it was difficult to say whether Li's appointment would be approved, a significant step toward healing the rift between Rome and Beijing.

"We don't know," said Joseph Kung, president of the U.S.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, which advocates for the underground Chinese church. "I think there will be a lot of speculation, but we really don't know the position of the Vatican, and we just have to be patient and wait for their remarks."

According to UCA News, Li was the overwhelming choice of voters in an election that pitted him against three other priests. Of the four, Li was the only one who had never studied abroad, having spent his entire career as a parish priest in China. Carroll said she was told Li was the candidate favored by the government.

She said she had briefly met him when she visited St. Joseph Church, the Beijing landmark where he is a pastor. Carroll said Li, who is said to be in his 40s, is known as "a pastoral man, not known to be involved in controversy or taking sides; a man who is described as a good man, a listening person, who learns and listens to others."

She added, however, that it remained to be seen whether he had the political skills and astuteness to hold his own in dealings with the Chinese government.


Tracy Wilkinson, The Times' Rome Bureau chief, contributed to this report.

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