Shen Bin: In China nobody wants a Church separated from the Pope

Interview with the Bishop of Haimen, recognized by the government and ordained in full communion with the Holy See, “We are like branches attached to the vine. We need the pastoral guidance of the Pontiff. The Gospel does not ask us to become antagonists of the established authorities. And Jesus says that we must be as cunning as serpents and as simple as doves”.

Oct 04, 2017

By Gianni Valente
When Joseph Shen Bin describes the condition of the Catholic Church in China, he often uses suggestive images from the Gospel. He goes on repeating that the Chinese Catholic communities are like branches attached to the vine, to indicate the true and unquenchable source of the of every bishop’ communion with the Successor of Peter. He then recalls Jesus’ invitation to be “as smart as snakes and as simple as doves”, referring to how Chinese bishops must behave in those all too real situation in which they find themselves working.

Joseph Shen Bin, Catholic Bishop of Haimen, in the coastal province of Jiansu, was born in 1970 into a Catholic family, he studied at the National Seminary in Beijing and was ordained priest in 1996. His episcopal ordination took place in the cathedral of Nantong on 21 April 2010, with the pontifical mandate and recognition of the political authorities.

Now Shen is a Bishop appreciated and valued by the apparatus of the Chinese government. The last Assembly of Chinese Catholic representatives elected him vice-president of the Patriotic Association and the Council of Chinese Bishops (which is not recognized by the Holy See). Shen takes considers the potential reconciliation between “official” Chinese Catholic communities and so-called “clandestine” the most precious and desirable fruit that can be expected from the ongoing dialogue between the Chinese government and the Holy See. Therefore, he looks at the events and problems of Chinese Catholicism with a sensus Ecclesiae that is not found in many of the speeches and comments focused on the Sino-Vatican relations.

Vatican Insider was able to interview Giuseppe Shen Bin on the occasion of his participation in the meeting “streets of peace” organized by the Community of Sant’ Egidio in the German dioceses of Münster and in Osnabrück from 10 to 12 September.

What are the leading criteria in your pastoral work? What are your main concerns? What drives and supports you in your mission?

I’m a bishop. And as a bishop I am called to take care of the diocese’s life, with special attention to priests and nuns. I have to support them in their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. I also take advantage of all the chances I have, even in the parishes, in order to announce the salvation and happiness brought by Christ. This is my life. These are things that fill my days.

Is the mission of announcing the Gospel an “exclusive mission” for priests and nuns? What about the people of God?

We are increasingly aware that every baptized person announces the Gospel when they witness in their life the effects of the gift of baptism. For this reason, in every province of China many courses and meetings are held for lay people, in order to support and encourage them in their Christian life. Of course, every diocese follows its own criteria. In my diocese, there are courses for adults and summer camps for university students and children. Each parish has this kind of activity, and we also carry some courses and activities on a diocesan level. This summer, about 300 children attended the classes of the diocesan summer camps. And then we also keep courses of permanent formation and spiritual retreats for priests and nuns. This is our ordinary (day by day) pastoral work.

You are recognized as a Bishop by the Chinese Government, and you were ordained bishop with the full consent of the Holy See. How do you live, personally and publicly the hierarchical communion with the Pope?

(Bishop Shen Smiles). Many things have changed in the current phase of Chinese history, and many things are still changing. Twenty years ago, we could not publicly pray for the Pope. We could not quote (speak about) the communion with the Pope in any text, in any situation. Now it’s all changed. We now pray for Pope Francis in every Mass. And we even sing hymns for the Pope, those were no longer used in China since a long time (he starts singing “...).

Can you only pray and sing to show your communion with the Pope?

Of course not. We follow his magisterium . In WeChat groups (the most used social network by the Chinese, ndr) we publish and share the homilies of Santa Marta every day, the Wednesday’s General papal Audiences (Papal Catechesis), and we report the Pope’s words in our own homilies ... Now, on a lot of occasions we talk about what the Pope does and says ... Is it so different from what happens in Catholic churches outside China? Sharing of the same faith also embraces communion with the Pope. (He shows me on his cell phone the last homilies of the Pope in his apostolic trip in Colombia, downloaded by WeChat).

Can you indicate pastoral initiatives in your Churches where it is evident that you follow the Pope’s Magisterium, and his pastoral solicitations?

We actually follow him in all. We in China celebrated everywhere with intensity the Pauline Year, which Pope Benedict XVI announced between 2008 and 2009. And the same happened with the Holy Year of Mercy convened by Pope Francis. We tried to take into account all the things suggested by Pope Francis that year. During the year of Mercy, everyone was happy to share this experience of prayer and reconciliation. Even in “ordinary” times, priests always communicate to the faithful the Pope’s prayer intentions. Thus, every month, every faithful know how to pray for the Pope, according to his intentions.

Some circles refer to Chinese Catholic bishops recognized by the government as members of a “de facto” schismatic Church, separated from the Church of Rome, and subjected to political power. According to those circles, Chinese Bishops recognized by the Chinese government are cowards or opportunists. How do you live the constant pressure of always having to prove your “orthodoxy”?

We have heard that it has been told something untrue regarding us. I ask myself, and ask to the others: if we had decided to oppose the government and its requests (rules), as some would have liked, now in China there would be the Church, the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, Una, Sancta Catholica et Apostolica, who publicly confesses the name of Christ, as it happens in China now, in the same way that it happens all over the world? We have understood long time ago that in China, to carry on, it is convenient not to oppose the government, and sometimes we have to (it is convenient to) distinguish between ecclesial matters, matters of faith on one side, and economic and administrative issues, which in itself do not affect the deposition of faith, on another side.

In China, is there still someone who wants to build an independent Catholic Church, separated from the universal Catholic Church?

(Bishop Shen smiles again). We are the branches united to the vine. We are the parts united to the body spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel and Saint Paul in his Letters. None of us has ever thought about separating or distinguishing ourselves from the universal Church, or to walk on different paths from the one on which the universal Church is walking. And this is true for us, for the Chinese bishops before us, and for those (bishops) who will come after us.

As Successors of the Apostles, what criteria do you follow in your Relationship with Civil Political Authorities?

We are Christ’s people, and Christ calls us to love and mercy. Can we refuse the dialogue and meeting with the government, as someone asks us to do? Our first desire is to live according to the Gospel, confessing faith in Christ. And I wonder if in China we could ever walk this road everywhere, if we chose to oppose and reject the government’s regulations. The Gospel does not ask us to assume the role of antagonists of the constituted authorities. And Jesus says we must be smart as snakes and simple as doves. I believe that now, in China, dialogue and reconciliation are the most important things. Also with the government. And we must not give too much importance to the bad accusations against us coming from outside.

The voice of the Chinese bishops recognized by the government is perhaps ignored by the Western press, also in the so called “specialized” agencies focused on the life of the Church in Asia.

We have noticed that, outside, our voice does not arrive. While there is a kind of amplification of other voices, the voices of some people who, from outside of China, pretend to play the role of “spokespersons” of Chinese Catholics. But those people do not express the true reality of the Church in China. I hope that the opportunities to hear our voice grow, even in the international contexts.

Did you speak at the meeting of Sant’Egidio.

In the days we spent in Munster and Osnabruck, we confirmed our impression that, in the globalization era, all the world has become quite like a single village. Distances have shortened. And it may be nice to enjoy the different colors that we meet in this garden.

China’s tradition and culture is able to respect the differences, by highlighting the common things we share. And the Church in China has proposed for first the path of harmonious coexistence with religions. The Catholic Church in China recognizes that there is a shared life, and everyone is called to do his duty well. In this common world, the Church in China is called to love the Lord and to love the Chinese people. We have to bring to the rich Chinese culture the seed of the Gospel, which does not belong to a single people and by its own nature can meet in a fruitful way every language, every nation, every continent.

The Pope asks that the priests and bishops, like good shepherds, serve the people of God and avoid careerism. Are there careerists in the Church of China too?

Yes, of course there are also careerists among us. There are priests who show that they dedicate all their energies and resources to spread the Gospel, and for the good of the Church, but they actually aim only at their prestige, they want to increase their reputation, to pursue those they see as successes. On the other hand, it is not necessary to label people just for the sake of judging our neighbor. We have to support the work of the priests, and watch over to avoid they should fall into these traps. We also talk about these things in meetings with priests.

Do you and your faithful hope for something to come from the dialogue between China and the Holy See? And what contribution can you offer for this dialogue?

There are two distinct plans: the relationship between the two States and the relationship between our Church and the Holy See. With regard to the first aspect, we cannot have any role, since we do not represent the State, or the Chinese government. We can only pray that even at this level, the Government and the Holy See can know each other, understand the benefits that dialogue can bring for both.

But what about the relations with the Holy See, what can you do?

Relations between the Vatican and the Chinese government affects us as members of the universal Church. If relations between China and the Holy See improve and consolidate, we can hope to see the solution of many problems affecting the Church in China. Because only through this dialogue between government and Holy See the effects of the painful division between the official ecclesial communities and the so-called “subterranean” communities can be mitigated and patiently overcome.

How do you think that this could happen?

As I have said, so many things have already changed in recent years. Now, the government has also taken charge of this affair with some seriousness. In China, we see that even Pope Francis expresses the sincere will of the Holy See to move forward in the dialogue. In short, there is a well-disposed situation. And this nourishes hope. We look forward to seeing this favorable opportunity to mature and bring fruit. And I hope so much the Vatican remember that there is a great Country in the East, it is like a “great sheep” of the flock, which cannot be neglected or abandoned.

And how can you encourage this path?

I do not think we should pretend to intervene in matters we are not competent for. We know there are so many complicated things to deal with. But we can give our contribution in a very simple way: working with care (passion) for the good of our Church. And also showing to the government that the Church in China is harmonious and can promote the common good (welfare) in our society. That’s what we can do.

But you, as a bishop recognized by the government, how do you consider the so-called “underground” catholic communities? Are they brothers and “enemies”?
I have never condemned the “underground” Catholics. We are all brothers in the one Church. There are problems and wounds, but there is no break in the fraternity.

Could you tell me a word, a phrase you would like to tell the Pope, about the real face of the Church in China?

I wish Pope hold good health, because the Church in China also needs his guide as the universal pastor (shepherd). I would say to him: we think of you every day, and we hope that you also remember us in your prayers.--La Stampa


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