It was shaping up to be a win in the Communist Party’s quest to contain a longtime nemesis — the Roman Catholic Church. In July 2012, a priest named Thaddeus Ma Daqin was to be ordained auxiliary bishop of Shanghai.

The communist body that has governed the church for six decades had angered the Holy See by appointing bishops without Vatican approval. Known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, it was now about to install Ma, one of its own officials, as deputy in China’s largest Catholic diocese.

“The anticipation was he would be a yes-man,” said Jim Mulroney, a priest and editor of the Hong Kong-based Sunday Examiner, a Catholic newspaper.

Instead, standing before a thousand Catholics and government officials at St. Ignatius Cathedral, Ma spurned the party. It wouldn’t be “convenient” for him to remain in the patriotic association, he said.

Many in the crowd erupted into thunderous applause. People wept. Ma had switched sides — and a crisis was under way.

The priest soon disappeared from public view, instructed by the late Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian to move to a mountainside seminary outside Shanghai, where he has been confined for over 20 months. He was stripped of his new title, questioned by officials for weeks and required to attend communist indoctrination classes.

Ma’s renunciation of the association forced into the open a struggle that had been playing out for years. The Catholic Church in China is split into two communities: an “official” church answerable to the Communist Party, and an “underground” church that swears allegiance only to the pope in Rome.

The most contentious issue between them is which side controls the ordination of bishops.

There are tentative signs a thaw may be possible. New leaders have been appointed in both the Vatican and China since Ma defied the patriotic association. The Chinese government has privately signaled it could appoint Ma as the next full bishop of Shanghai, a position now vacant, and release two long-jailed bishops loyal to the Vatican, according to a source close to the Holy See.

But any change in Ma’s status is likely to be gradual, the Vatican source said, given opposition from the Shanghai government, still furious over Ma’s repudiation of the official church.

Since the Vatican and China have no official ties, unofficial emissaries from Beijing pass messages to the Vatican either directly to Rome or through the Vatican’s charge d’affaires in Hong Kong.

“I’m a little positive this time,” the Vatican source said.

But China has yet to send any public signal that it is willing to resume a dialogue with the Vatican, and some hard-liners in the Catholic Church oppose any accommodation with Beijing.

The impasse coincides with a broader crackdown by the Chinese leadership against dissident groups — including Christians who go to “house churches,” rights lawyers, academics and activists — that have resulted in a spate of trials and detentions.

Hunger for spirituality

For the Vatican, the stakes in China are enormous: A population of nearly 1.4 billion lives in a society that hungers for spirituality at a time when Catholicism’s traditional stronghold in Europe is flagging.

The stakes are high for the Communist Party, too. The Catholic Church is perhaps the largest nonparty institution in China. The church has been in the country since Jesuit missionaries first arrived in 1534, far longer than the Communist Party, and it is growing.

China officially recognizes five religions — Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity and Catholicism — and supervises them through state-run associations. The officially atheist government is wary of any organization that might challenge its moral authority, and especially those tied to a foreign entity.

The Communist Party tried to force Catholics to join the patriotic association when it was established in 1957. Clergy and laity who refused to renounce ties with the Vatican were imprisoned, beaten and, in some cases, killed. The campaign drove Catholics loyal to the pope underground, causing a split that remains to this day.

But nearly six decades of state control and sometimes brutal oppression has failed to eradicate the underground Catholic community. Membership today is about evenly divided between those who attend China’s official and underground churches.

The number of Catholics has risen from an estimated 8 million in 1988 to about 12 million today, according to Anthony Lam, a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, an organ of the Diocese of Hong Kong.

China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs counts 5.3 million Catholics as belonging to the patriotic association, which oversees 70 bishops and approximately 6,000 churches nationwide.

But the lines are beginning to blur. Many underground churches are allowed to operate with the tacit approval of local officials. A new generation of Catholics, less angered by a bitter past, go to Mass at both underground and official churches.

For the Chinese government, the ordination of bishops in the roughly 110 bishop seats in China is its main lever of control over the church. The Vatican, however, sees the ordination of “illicit” bishops as a trend that will weaken the validity of the Catholic Church in China.

‘There are relations’

Pope Francis has been silent on the standoff, but he told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera recently he had exchanged letters with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first acknowledgment of communication since both men took office in late 2012. “There are relations,” Francis said, without elaborating.

Vatican watchers speculate Francis could visit Beijing this summer during a tour of Asia. If so, it would be the first by a pope to Chinese territory since the Communists took power in 1949 and quickly ended diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

The enduring rupture, however, suggests any end to the standoff over bishop appointments may be a long way off. Ma’s rebuff still stings, says Anthony Liu Bainian, a layman and the honorary chairman of the patriotic association.

“He deceived the bishops and cheated the government as well as the public,” Liu said in an interview, in his first public remarks on the incident. “How can you then take on the responsibility for such a large diocese as Shanghai? This clearly shows that (Ma) was under the influence of foreigners.”

Quiet detente

For most of the last decade, the Communist Party and the Vatican tried to accommodate each other’s views on the crucial issue of bishop appointments. A bishop in China’s official church is supposed to be “elected” by local priests, nuns and some laymen, and the government and the Vatican usually agreed on the choice.

That arrangement began to break down in 2010, when the patriotic association appointed four bishops who had not been approved by the Vatican, which excommunicated three of them, a move that hadn’t been taken against a Chinese bishop since 1951.

After that, local authorities sent police to escort Vatican-appointed bishops to attend official church ordinations and detained other bishops loyal to the Vatican ahead of the ceremonies.

Yet a truce still seemed possible. On July 4, 2012, three days before Ma’s ordination, a spokesman for the government’s Religious Affairs Bureau said China was “willing to enter into consultations with the Vatican on issues including the ordination of bishops.”

An extraordinary scene

Then, on July 7, 2012, came Ma’s ordination.

By all accounts, it was an extraordinary scene at St. Ignatius Cathedral that day. Scores of priests and nuns had gathered outside to protest against the participation in the ceremony of Vincent Zhan Silu, a bishop loyal to the patriotic association who had been ordained without Vatican approval.

Ma had been close to Shanghai’s official Bishop, Aloysius Jin Luxian, who died on April 27, 2013, at the age of 96. Jin himself had walked a fine line, spending nearly three decades under house arrest, in re-education camps and in prison before joining the official church.

When Zhan was one of those named to help officiate at the ceremony, Jin convened a meeting of Shanghai’s priests and nuns and told them to “act according to your conscience” when it came to attending the ordination.

“Bishop Jin was so furious,” said Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong. “He called all the priests and said: ‘I did all I could but they are still trying to impose this illegitimate bishop (Zhan), so I will do all my best to humiliate this fellow.’ “

And, from the view of the official church, that is precisely what transpired.

Jin and two other bishops performed the “laying on of hands” ritual that is meant to invoke the Holy Spirit during an ordination. Zhan and two other bishops were also supposed to perform the ritual. But Ma prevented them from putting their hands on his head by rising from his knees and hugging the three bishops instead.

Ma then strode to the pulpit, and referring to the crowd of priests and nuns outside, said: “Today, from our diocese, there are several brothers, sisters, priests and nuns who were not able to attend due to various reasons. I would like to say, I love them.”

He spoke about the need to focus on pastoral duties in his new role as bishop, as opposed to the bureaucratic duties that come with the job as a patriotic association bishop. “Therefore, starting from this day of consecration, I will no longer find it convenient to be a member of the Patriotic Association,” he announced.

Must ‘truly repent’

It isn’t clear what led Ma to turn against the patriotic association that day. But the association’s honorary chairman, Liu, who wasn’t in attendance that day, was furious nevertheless.

“When they told me about this matter, I said, ‘It’s finished, it’s finished,’ ” he recalled in an interview. Ma’s actions “violated church regulations.”

Asked whether Ma could eventually become a full bishop, as the Vatican source has suggested, Liu said that Ma was “a talented person” but has to “truly repent. He first has to understand and recognize his mistake.”

Beijing has to take a stricter line with Catholics than other religions because of past actions by the church, Liu said, referring to the sweeping apology by Pope John Paul II in 2000 for the Church’s history of violence, persecution and blunders.

“Especially now that foreign ruling powers want to contain the development of China, they must also want to use religion to sow discord,” Liu said.

The Vatican tried to look for a diplomatic solution after Ma’s act of defiance. In October 2012, three months after the St. Ignatius ceremony, Rome proposed “a new way for dialogue,” calling for a “bilateral commission for relations” similar to those between China and Taiwan and between the Vatican and communist Vietnam.

The proposal’s author, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, a China expert who heads the Vatican department that deals with missions, listed the stumbling blocks to better ties in a letter to Beijing: “The “sharpened control of the state over the Church” since 2010 and the “heavy interference of the civil authorities over the appointment of bishops.”

He told the Italian news agency Ansa last October that he had not received a reply from Beijing.

The Jesuit pope

Ma’s “patriotic education” classes ended last August, according to the source close to the Vatican. The patriotic association, meanwhile, has not ordained any bishops for over a year, a development the source called “a good signal.”

The change of leadership in Rome may help, Vatican watchers say. They note that Pope Francis is a Jesuit, the first pontiff from the Catholic order that established the church in China. According to Cardinal Filoni, Francis has in his room a statue of “Our Lady of Sheshan,” the Chinese icon of Mother Mary whose main shrine is at the seminary outside Shanghai.

The Vatican’s new secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, Parolin, was the chief negotiator with China in 2007.

“The Vatican, by appointing this man as a secretary of state — that in itself is a statement that it wants dialogue, and I think China understands this,” said the Rev. Jeroom Heyndrickx, from the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, who has previously acted as an unofficial emissary between the Holy See and China.

The Vatican has previously signaled a willingness to cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a condition China has imposed for the resumption of diplomatic ties. A Taiwanese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Anna Kao, said Taipei and the Vatican maintain official diplomatic ties and the island nation has “heard no news to the contrary.”

Meanwhile, Ma remains at the Sheshan Seminary. His quarters, which he shares with a half-dozen priests, overlook a lush bamboo forest. In one room, a photo of the retired Pope Benedict XVI hangs on a wall and a small Chinese flag sits on a desk.

He regularly posts blog items for the faithful, mostly excerpts from scripture and greetings to his flock.

In a Dec. 6 post, shortly after the death of Nelson Mandela, the priest cited one of the South African liberation leader’s most famous quotations: “Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all my people were the chains on me.”

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