A prophet and a hero, this is how many Chinese Catholics - and we with them - define the first steps of the newly elected auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, Msgr Ma Thaddeus Daqin.
In just one day, the day of his consecration on 7 July, he rejected the imposition of hands by an excommunicated bishop; did not drink from the same cup as the illicit bishop and publicly resigned from the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association (PA), considering this an obstacle to his "pastoral and evangelisation work."
The Religious Affairs Bureau did not like this perfectly aimed blow and has confined him to house arrest in the Sheshan seminary [on the outskirts of Shanghai], for a forced period of "rest".
In carrying out these gestures Msgr Ma simply claimed religious freedom for his commitment as a bishop, a principle which the Chinese constitution defends. Only that alongside the constitution there are provincial and national regulations that subject the life of the Christian community and their pastors to controls, threats, flattery, bribery, putting up every possible obstacle to the commitment to evangelisation.
Through these gestures Msgr Ma also affirms that the ordination of a pastor is not a political issue manipulated by those in power, but a religious act in which the Pope and his instructions are to be respected for the sake of truth.
Benedict XVI's Letter
After the Letter of Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics - in which the Pope declared the principles that underpin the Patriotic Association (to build a Church independent of the Holy See) "incompatible with Catholic doctrine" - the leaders of the Association have launched a campaign to defend their existence.
Faced with bishops who affirmed their loyalty to the Pope, they began to choose bishops easy to compromise with the Party, engaged in politics, government representatives.
At the ordination of bishops approved of by the Pope, they began to impose the participation of excommunicated bishops; they also began to force bishops in communion with the Pope to participate in illicit ordinations - those without Papal approval. All this to say that the licence of orthodoxy or legitimacy does not belong to the Roman Pope, but the presidents and secretaries of the Patriotic Association.
Counteracting this miasma of ambiguities and equivocacies, the prophetic gesture of Daqin Ma has arisen, like "a ray of sunshine in a dark sky".
Bishop Ma is the first official bishop to resign from the PA and many Chinese Catholics hope that others will follow him.
Moreover, being a member of the PA has now become counterproductive, for religious reasons. First of all ideological ones and then theological ones: a Church separated from the Pope is not the Catholic Church, but just another church which is likely - as has happened many times in history - to become a sect increasingly emptied of its spiritual character and which survives only thanks to the goodwill of a political power.
Belonging to the PA is also an obstacle to pastoral work: the bishops are obliged to continue to travel, to attend meetings and formation programs, staying away from their dioceses for months at a time, to hear the empty and boring theories on the control of religion, the benevolent power of the Association, forced to express "profound gratitude" to the association that allows them to survive.
When they finally get to be in their diocese, their every encounter or personal relationship is authenticated, verified, registered, permitted or cancelled by the PA.
Being a PA prop has also become socially embarrassing. While the Chinese people suffer from a deep economic crisis, with inflation making it increasingly difficult to scrap together a meal every day, PA secretaries and presidents are famous for their spending and largesse at the expense of the government and the diocese, in luxury hotels, with banqueting facilities for up to 24-course meals, of refined and expensive foods, while in the diocese, especially those in the rural areas, it is a struggle to procure clean water or provide a minimum of medical care to the poor.
A statistical report by the same government denounces that every year Party members spend around €31.5 billion on banquets, a sum capable of feeding at least one hundred million people for a whole year.
Faced with such a corruption of political power, it is also convenient for the bishops to distance themselves in order to fulfil their mission placing themselves of the side of Christ and the poor.
Bishop Ma's decision is prophetic and destined to make history. It is probable that some bishops remain attached to the PA. It's where they get their chauffeur driven car from, their new Episcopal palaces, money, fame, treats: the famous "opportunist" bishops of which Benedict XVI has once spoken.
We fear that these are only "tasteless salt" who serve no other purpose than to be walked upon.
It is worthwhile remembering that even now many faithful put pressure on their bishops to pay more attention to living their Episcopal ministry, rather than their political role.
In the years after Mao Zedong, the lay faithful forced many fearful bishops to contact the Holy See to be reunited - after decades of ambiguity - with the Catholic Church.
Even today, the lay faithful demonstrate their faith and their love for Christ and the bishops deserting Masses where the pastors are illegal and travelling to other dioceses loyal to the spiritual bond with Benedict XVI.
With acknowledgement to AsiaNews, website, www.asianews.it