Coadjutor Bishop Francis An Shuxin, 60, who was imprisoned for ten years as a bishop loyal to Rome, has moved to the state-approved Church. He has now been made one of the five vice-chairpersons of the local CPA, a Church administration body, and director of the Church Affairs Committee (CAC) in the diocese of Baoding, in Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing.
Bishop An told UCA News he hoped his move would help normalize Church life in Baoding. Saying he felt helpless over the "cruel" divisions in the Church community there, he hoped that by taking positions in the government-sanctioned bodies he could "facilitate the Diocese's development."
Bishop An was arrested in May 1996 in a raid ordered by the then-President, Jiang Zemin, against the underground seminary of Baoding (Hebei), which the bishop was also in charge of. After his arrest, the seminary was disbanded and priests on the formation team were arrested.
Until his release in 2006 there had been no news of him at all, although churches, governments, and organizations persisted in calling for his liberation.His decision now has generated controversy both within China and outside the country.
Pope Benedict XVI, in a letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007, said that "state agencies" exercising control over the Church independently of the Vatican is "incompatible with Catholic doctrine."
Bishop An said that even though the CPA is a state agency, the involvement of bishops and priests holding key posts will effectively bring it within the Church structure and help preserve the faith and the Church's interests.
"We remain obedient to the Pope in faith and Church doctrine. I did not promise anything except taking up the CPA position," he stated.
"You cannot work normally if you don't get the government's recognition, as other bishops have found in their dioceses," he said.
Bishop An acknowledged that some underground priests and laypeople found it hard to understand his move.
"I refused to join the CPA at first after I was released in 2006. I changed my mind after reading the Pope's letter."
The prelate pointed out that the letter leaves the matter of registering with civil authorities to individual bishops to decide, in consultation with their priests and after evaluating the consequences.
Bishop An said he has reported to the Vatican from time to time on the diocese's situation and has received back affirmation from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples on his efforts for reconciliation in Baoding diocese.
Fr Joseph Yang Yicun, chairperson of the Baoding CPA, told UCA News that local government officials have reported to the State Administration for Religious Affairs on the bishop's decision to join the CPA. He expects the prelate to be given lawful status soon.
About 30 state-approved clergy recognize Bishop Francis' authority in the diocese. About 60 underground priests work covertly in its territory. Some secretly obey Bishop An, while the rest refuse his leadership now that he has joined the state Church community.
Bishop James Su Zhimin (Zhemin) of Baoding, 77, was detained in October 1997 and has not been released. He appeared briefly in a hospital in November 2003, but there has been no news about him since then.