The consecration of the new Bishop Joseph Zhang Yinlin in Anyang on August 4 may signal a positive change in Beijing-Vatican ties.
This time, the Catholic Church in China ordained a Bishop approved by the Vatican.
While the official Catholic Patriotic Association, linked to the party, had elected him a few months ago, Zhang had received the papal approval as early as 2009, Stefania Falasca noted in Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops.
So for the first time in many years, the ordination ceremony of a Bishop was held without controversies. Dozens of noncontroversial bishops and priests attended the ceremony.
In the past, such ceremonies were marred by the presence of some bishops whose selection had created controversy as they were hand-picked by Beijing.
Vatican was not happy with the way such ordinations were conducted as they ran against its religious beliefs while Beijing failed to see or did not care about these ancient sacred practices.
This time, however, no shadow was cast during the ritual in Anyang as Beijing had taken extra care in the religious details of the appointment.
Over the past years, there has been a growing cultural interest in Christianity even among the upper echelons of the Communist Party close to President Xi Jinping
The details of Catholic practice, however, are extremely complicated and it is hard to predict whether they will be respected and followed during every such ceremony to be held in the future.
Many people in Beijing and Vatican are eager to scuttle the ties between China and the Holy See. Against this background, the recent ceremony in Anyang came as a clear sign of “parallel consensus”, as Falasca noted in Avvenire.
This consensus seems to be hinging on a growing mutual recognition of the principles each stands for.
The consecration comes just a month before Xi Jinping and the Pope are likely to be present in New York.
On several occasions, Pope Francis had expressed his willingness to meet Xi Jinping. If such a meeting takes place, the ordination of China’s new Bishop could help in reducing the tension which had begun after Communist China snapped ties with the Vatican.
While nothing can be said about a possible improvement in ties between the two, the extra care taken by Beijing this time might signal a paradigm shift in its approach towards the Catholic Church.
The Vatican’s focus is not on numbers – China’s 12 million Catholics. It is more concerned about the well-being of the faithful and, more importantly, the missed opportunity since the 18th century when it disbanded the very successful Jesuit mission in China.
China, conversely, considers the Catholic Church only from the point of view of numbers. Christians constitute less than 1 percent of the population and they are not troublemakers. In their priority list, Catholics come way below issues like economic development, ties with the United States and Japan, and unemployment.
In the past, many Chinese intellectuals had underlined ties with Vatican which, they argued, could help the world, especially the West, understand China better.
The next few months will be very crucial for this extremely important relationship.