Monsignor Giuseppe Shen Bin (Catholic Press Photo)

Shen Bin and Francis’ choice

The appointment of the Bishop of Shanghai is a new step in the relations between the Holy See and Beijing, dictated by the Pope's concern that the "small flock" of faithful in China may live the faith more freely.
Gianni Valente*

There is a new bishop in Shanghai. His name is Joseph Shen Bin, he is 53 years old and was born in 1970 in the city of Qi Dong. He comes from a family with a long Catholic tradition. Pope Francis appointed him bishop of Shanghai by "transferring him from the diocese of Haimen," as the Holy See's Press Office bulletin explained on July 15. A protocol formula, which in the case at hand took on unprecedented scope and relevance, given the long and troubled history of relations between the People's Republic of China and the Catholic Church.

In fact, Joseph Shen Bin had already taken office as bishop of Shanghai last April 4. His move from the episcopal see of Haimen to Shanghai was organized by the bodies in China that also manage the affairs of the Catholic Church according to rules and procedures dictated by the Chinese political system. Moreover, Shanghai is also home to Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who was ordained auxiliary bishop in June 2012 when the diocese was still led by Jesuit Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian. Ma Daqin had been elected bishop with the consent of both the Holy See and the government in Beijing, but at the end of the episcopal ordination liturgy he had expressed his intention to relinquish the positions he had held until then in the so-called Patriotic Association, a body in charge of enforcing rules and procedures imposed by national religious policy in the Church. For this reason, since that time, Ma Daqin has been prevented from exercising his episcopal ministry. The Shanghai diocese had been effectively vacant since 2013, when Elder Jin Luxian had passed away. However, the Holy See continues to recognize Ma Daqin as auxiliary bishop of Shanghai.

These details alone are enough to hint at the uniqueness of the appointment made by Pope Francis. The Pope actually recognized the transfer of a bishop from one diocese to another, a move made in principle without the consent of the Holy See. Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, in an interview released by Vatican media on July 15 itself, explained that with the appointment-transfer of Shen Bin Pope Francis “decided nevertheless to rectify the canonical irregularity created in Shanghai, in view of the greater good of the diocese and the fruitful exercise of the bishop’s pastoral ministry.”

In the latest developments regarding the leadership of the Shanghai diocese, all the constraints that for decades have weighed on the historical story of Chinese Catholicism in its relations with the civil authorities and the Holy See come to the fore. A history of suffering, marked also by times of bloody persecution, which had a relevant turning point with the agreement signed between the Holy See and the Chinese government on September 22, 2018. Renewed for two consecutive two-year terms in 2020 and 2022, and always referred to as a "provisional" agreement, the Agreement is circumscribed to the issue of the appointments of Chinese bishops, the epicenter from which all the wounds that for decades have divided Catholic communities in China began, when the apparatuses of power imposed the appointment of bishops ordained without the consent of the Apostolic See and without a pontifical mandate.

Since it was first signed, the protocols for episcopal appointments established in the agreement guarantee that all Chinese bishops are and will be ordained with the consent of the Pope, in full and public hierarchical communion with the Successor of Peter. According to the initial statements of intent, the agreement was supposed to create "conditions for broader cooperation at the bilateral level," so as to gradually address other open issues that weigh negatively on the status of Chinese Catholicism, starting with the status of "underground" bishops not recognized by the government. The bargain between the parties involved was to discuss each of them to the bitter end until a shared solution was found, without ever breaking it or taking unilateral steps.

The transfer of Bishop Shen Bin from Haimen to Shanghai, which was not agreed upon with the Holy See, was perceived in the Vatican precisely as a unilateral move. The flexibility of the agreement, as a "provisional" instrument that can be modified and improved in the course of the work, can also cope with mishaps along the way, which have been taken into account from the beginning even by the Pope's collaborators following the Chinese dossier. The fact remains – also calmly stressed by Cardinal Parolin in the interview published by Vatican media on the day of the Shanghai appointment – that the succession of unilateral initiatives could compromise the climate of mutual trust necessary for the Sino-Vatican meetings to continue in a fruitful manner.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis, with his decision to appoint to the episcopal see of Shanghai the bishop who had already been installed in that diocesan see, has once again made clear and evident the criteria and "compass" that guide the current Successor of Peter and have also guided his predecessors in addressing the problems and difficulties faced by their Chinese Catholic brethren.

The agreement on the appointments of Chinese Bishops touches intimate fibers of the apostolic nature of the Church, and the proper dynamism of its sacramental life. The essence of the agreement has to do with the memory of the martyrs and the validity of the sacraments celebrated in the parishes, chapels and homes of the People's Republic of China. Assets that belong to an order incomparable to those ordinarily involved in agreements signed by the Holy See with governments and sovereign entities. In the condition in which they find themselves, shared with their compatriots, Chinese Catholics, a "small flock," can live the adventure of confessing faith in Christ in present-day China as it is, without privileges, without being singled out and perceived as a foreign body, as exotic guests or representatives of distant cultures.

From the Holy See's point of view, the intention of the agreement, even taking into account the difficulties in its implementation, remains to file away suspicions about the sacraments being validly administered in all Chinese churches, and also archive the misleading stereotypes about the "two Churches" – the one "loyal to the Pope" and the one "linked to the communist government" – that still run rampant in the conformist media portrayal of Catholicism in China. For this reason, Pope Francis has no fear of malicious critics who accuse him of “surrendering” to communist China.

Also in Shanghai – as Cardinal Parolin explained in the aforementioned interview – the intention of the Pope in canonically "legitimizing" Shen Bin's transfer was "fundamentally pastoral, and will allow Monsignor Shen Bin to work with greater serenity to promote evangelization and foster ecclesial communion."

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In the same interview, Cardinal Parolin refers to Shen Bin an "esteemed pastor." Since he took office at the head of the Shanghai diocese, the bishop has contributed in various ways to reactivating diocesan pastoral dynamisms. He is also well-liked by political system, which favored his appointment to lead the "College" of Chinese Catholic bishops. In a 2017 interview, speaking about the condition of Catholics in China, Shen Bin said, "We are like the branches attached to the vine. We need the pastoral guidance of the Pontiff." In the same interview, he recalled that "the Gospel does not ask us to become antagonistic to the established authorities." And in this regard he also cited the Gospel passage in which "Jesus says that we must be cunning as serpents and simple as doves. He who has ears, let him hear.

*director of Fides News Agency