Pope Benedict XVI insisted on Saturday on his exclusive 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 Salesian prelate from Hong Kong 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 did not 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.”
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 Chinese still 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 (馬英林) — 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 (劉百年), spokesman for the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, congratulated Hon and said there was no need for him to serve as a bridge between the two sides as the Vatican and China already had a dialogue.
However, in an interview 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.