On Tuesday, April 4, 2023, the Most Reverend Joseph SHEN Bin was installed as Bishop of Shanghai.
Bishop Shen had been serving as the bishop of the Diocese of Haimen, located in Nantong, Jiangsu Province, not far from Shanghai. He was ordained bishop on April 21, 2010, at which time he both received the mandate of the Holy See and was recognized by the government. His predecessor as Bishop of Haimen, Msgr. Matthew YU Chengcai, had not been recognized by Rome. In 2013, Bishop Shen was later elected vice-president of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which works closely with the United Front of the Chinese Communist Party.
Bishop Shen currently serves as the president of the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference. While all bishops in China are currently in communion with Rome, this bishops’ conference is not recognized by Rome. That is because it does not include those bishops who have not registered with the government but who are also in full communion with Rome. These unregistered bishops are often referred to as China’s “underground bishops.”
Bishop Shen’s appointment letter as Bishop of Shanghai came from the council of bishops that he himself heads. The Vatican states this move was unilateral in that it only involved the Chinese side. On April 5, Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, stated, “The Holy See had been informed a few days ago of the decision of the Chinese authorities” to transfer Bishop Shen from Haimen to Shanghai, and it only “learned from the media of the installation this morning.” In the days leading up to the installation, priests, sisters, and lay Catholics in the Shanghai Diocese were consulted in an effort to gain their support.
The Diocese of Shanghai is an important center of the Catholic Church in China. Its roots as a center of faith go back to the Ming Dynasty, when one of its most prominent sons, Xu Guangqi (a protégé of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci) served in various high positions in the imperial court. t is home to a major seminary and one of China’s most famous pilgrimage sites at Sheshan.
In 2000, the Vatican recognized bishop of Shanghai, Ignatius KUNG Pin-Mei, died while in exile in the United States, and the Vatican recognized Bishop Joseph FAN Zhongliang, his coadjutor, to be his successor. Bishop Fan had already had numerous unfriendly encounters with local authorities. They recognized Msgr. Aloysius JIN Luxian as bishop instead. Bishop Jin had been ordained without Vatican approval in 1985 and installed as the state-approved Bishop of Shanghai in 1988. In 2005 the Vatican finally recognized Bishop Jin as the administrator bishop of Shanghai on behalf of Bishop Fan.
Over the years, all sides worked for reconciliation, and in 2005 the Chinese Patriotic Association and the Vatican agreed to the consecration of Giuseppe XING Wenzhi as auxiliary bishop to succeed both Bishop Fan and Bishop Jin. In 2010 Bishop Xing excused himself from this role for personal reasons, and Bishop Thaddeus MA Daqin was chosen instead to be consecrated as the new successor to Bishop Fan and Bishop Jin. Unfortunately, as is well known, in 2012 at his own consecration as auxiliary bishop in the Cathedral of St. Ignatius in Shanghai, Bishop Ma publicly repudiated his membership in the Patriotic Association. He was placed under house arrest, and the diocese was placed under administrative lock down.
In 2013, Bishop Jin passed away, as did Bishop Fan, who had Alzheimer’s disease, the following year. As a result, until this appointment, the Diocese of Shanghai has been operating under a council of priests.
The Diocese remains divided, and many are looking to Rome for guidance. While the provisions of the entente between Rome and Beijing on the appointment of bishops is unclear, in this case, Bishop Shen was not ordained without Vatican approval. His ordination was approved by Rome in 2010. It is his installation in a new diocese that was not approved. Article 377.5 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law states that “no rights and privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation of bishops are granted to civil authorities.” In this case, it was not civil authorities that authorized the installation of Bishop Shen, but the irregular Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Nonetheless, the Vatican has been clear that such appointments violate the spirit of the Beijing-Vatican accord.
Bishop Shen will serve as pastor under difficult and painful circumstances. He states that one of his most important missions is to bring reconciliation to a divided church.
You can go here to read an interview with Msgr. Shen conducted by Vatican Insider in 2017. In that interview, one theme he stressed is that in China nobody wants a Church separated from the Pope.
During this Easter triduum, when we enter into the death and the resurrection of Jesus, let us keep the Church of Shanghai, its sisters, its priests, its bishop, and all its faithful in our prayers.