The Sino-Vatican Provisional Agreement

Updated: Aug 31

by Mary Moran

Washington. DC



Much has been stated, written, and debated about the China-Vatican provisional agreement of September 22, 2018. This is the first agreement between the Vatican and China since the Communist Party came to power in October 1949. Thus, the significance cannot be underestimated. Yet, virtually all statements, commentary, articles, and analyses have come from outside the mainland of China. In any debate, it’s important to understand both sides. It now appears that the Vatican-China agreement is set for renewal even in the midst of protests. (see (1)Joshua McElwee at: https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/vatican-china-deal-bishop-appointments-appears-set-renewal; (2)Sedos Mission, https://sedosmission.org/article/mission-to-china-today-after-the-agreement-beijing-rome/ (3) UCA News, Sinization of the Church: The Plan in Full: https://www.ucanews.com/news/sinicization-of-china-church-the-plan-in-full/82931)

Hopefully China and the Vatican will publicly release the actual agreement if it is renewed. Such public disclosure will help the entire world to not only understand the relationship between China and the Vatican, but also help to heal differences, particularly between China’s two Catholic communities – the official and underground communities. (See Paul P. Mariani, S.J.) https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2018/12/07/extremely-high-stakes-china-vatican-deal)

In lieu of an interview, I submit the following article, “Accomplishments of the Sino-Vatican Provisional Agreement” written by Giovanni Ye Shen, a Catholic scholar from mainland China, highlighting the perspective of success of the Vatican-China agreement as perceived from mainland China. Shen looks at the accomplishments in four areas: signs of reconciliation and communion on the local and national ecclesial levels, public inaugurations of previously unregistered bishops, and ordination of new bishops.

Accomplishments of the Sino-Vatican Provisional Agreement by Giovanni Ye Shen

I. Introduction

Last Tuesday (August 18, 2020), the Diocese of Ningb, Zhejiang province held the inauguration ceremony for Bishop Xavier Jin Yangke. This was the latest incident of the successful resolution of episcopal appointment issues in China since the signing of the Sino-Vatican Provisional Agreement (hereinafter referred to as “the Agreement”) on September 22, 2018.

More than one year ago, a Chinese priest from southeastern China recalled that Archbishop Celli, the Papal envoy and chief negotiator of the Sino-Vatican talks had held a special meeting in Beijing on December 12, 2018. At that time he conveyed the greetings and counsels from the Pope, the Secretary of Vatican State and the Prefect of Propaganda Fidei to Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of the Mindong diocese and other Chinese clerics. Bishop Vincent Guo, upon returning to the Mindong diocese on the next day, notified the diocesan council of his decision to obey the Pope and accept the role of Auxiliary Bishop. The difficult issue of episcopal leadership in Mindong has found a preliminary resolution.

What changes and improvements has the Provisional Agreement brought to the Catholic Church in China in the past two years? As we approach the second anniversary of the Agreement, let us look back at the accomplishments in four areas: signs of reconciliation and communion on local and national ecclesial levels, public inaugurations of previously unregistered bishops, and ordinations of new bishops.


Hopefully China and the Vatican will publicly release the actual agreement if it is renewed. 

II. Accomplishment I: progress in communion in the local churches

Since the signing of the Agreement, the Church in China has taken steps toward communion. Although the long suffering local churches have not yet fully resolved their differences with the open church, now with barriers to reconciliation removed there is a rising hope for full communion. Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin and Bishop Joseph Yue Fusheng, two of the first beneficiaries of the Agreement, serve as good examples. .

Bishop Joseph Yue at a solemn Eucharistic Celebration, ordained five deacons to the priesthood in Harbin City, on October 18, 2018. The deacons and 53 priests celebrated mass with no cause for concerns and worries. This was the first time since Bishop Yue’s episcopal consecration (without papal mandate) on July 6, 2012 that so many priests joined in the liturgical celebration.

On November 30 of the same year, Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin ordained three deacons—two from the Yi ethnic minority and one from the Jingpo minority—in the diocese of Kunming. More than 70 priests joined the concelebration. This became the most participated Missa concelebrate in the history of the Yunnan Church.

These two ordinations were highly significant, given the checkered historical background. Between 2000 and 2012, more than a dozen cases of episcopal consecration without papal mandate led to a virtual stand-off between China and the Vatican. Not only did the massive misunderstanding get wide international attention, it also widened the gap between the official and the clandestine church communities. The dioceses involved were seriously affected by the question of legality of priestly ordinations. Some seminarians chose to postpone their ordination, others joined different dioceses or religious communities, and some even gave up their priestly vocations. Only with the signing of the Agreement did the ordinations and concelebrations with these bishops cease to pose as a major challenge for these local churches.

III. Accomplishment II: realizing communion in the Church in China

On December 18, 2018, more than 200 representatives, both clergy and lay leaders, attended the National Catholic Conference in Nanjing. In the morning all clerical participants concelebrated the Eucharist presided by Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin. This was the first time in decades that all the clergy voluntarily participated in a Missa concelebrata at a national meeting. In the past, on occasions like this, there were always clerics who resisted such concelebrations, notwithstanding prior warnings, wake-up calls at the hotels, or even knocks on their doors! Thanks to the Agreement, all the clergy could concelebrate in harmony without conflicting feelings.

Meanwhile, positive changes are taking place in the relationship between the so-called official and the clandestine communities. The two sides stopped mutual criticisms and even concelebrated Masses on some occasions. In some dioceses and parishes, one can now witness cooperative undertakings by both sides aimed toward unity. This shows that, while full communion and unity will likely take years, the base for reconciliation has been built.

IV. Accomplishment III: Public inaugurations of seven bishops ordained in secret

Thanks to the Provisional Agreement, the episcopal ordination of six bishops had been publicly recognized by the Chinese government. This paves the way for recognition of more local bishops ordained in secret. The seven cases are as follows (names of the bishops are in bold):

  1. January 22, 2019, retirement ceremony for Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou, Guangdong province.

  2. January 30, 2019, inauguration ceremony for Coadjutor Bishop Peter Jin Lugang of Nanyang, Henan province.

  3. April 18, 2019, Holy Thursday, participation of Auxiliary Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin in the Chrism Mass presided by Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu of Mindong, Fujian province.

  4. June 9, 2020, inauguration ceremony for the 84-year-old Bishop Peter Lin Jiashan of Fuzhou, Fujian province.

  5. June 22, 2020, inauguration ceremony for Bishop Peter Li Huiyuan of Fengxiang, Shaanxi province.

  6. July 9, 2020, inauguration ceremony for Bishop Paul Ma Cunguo of Shuozhou, Shanxi province.

  7. August 18, 2020, inauguration ceremony for Bishop Xavier Jin Yangke of Ningbo, Zhejiang province.

Among these seven bishops, Bishop Peter Zhuang, Bishop Xavier Jin and Bishop Paul Ma belong to the officially recognized church community and they attended the officially sanctioned seminaries (Shanghai Sheshan Seminary and Shanxi Taiyuan Major Seminary respectively); but their episcopal ordinations were made without official permits. The other four bishops all received their priestly formations, priestly ordinations and episcopal consecrations in the “clandestine” communities.

In the past, the recognition of an “unofficial” bishop took various forms. Some, like Bishop Peter Chen Bolu, in 1989, had to undergo a “conditional episcopal ordination.” Others had to concelebrate in public with the bishops of CCPA & BCCCC. For example, Bishop Francis An Shuxin of Baoding (2010), Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang of Wenzhou (2011), Bishop Joseph Wu Qinjing of Zhouzhi (2015), Bishop Joseph Han Zhihai of Lanzhou (2017), and Bishop Joseph Sun Jigen of Handan (2017) all went through this process. The atmosphere of the concelebrations could be tense; and, in some cases, even unpleasant. After the Provisional Agreement, official recognition could be done in public inaugurations (Nanyang, Fuzhou, Fengxiang, Shuozhou), a retirement ceremony (Shantou) or a public concelebration (Mindong).

Depending on the complexity of the local situations, the Chinese authorities enabled the Vatican representative to meet with the bishops in question to address the problems. Among the thorniest cases was the one involving the Shantou and the Mindong dioceses where two bishops came from two rivaling church communities. Upon the signing of the Provisional Agreement, the Sino-Vatican work team put it as top priority on its agenda.

Thus, on December 12, 2018, Archbishop Celli respectively met with Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou diocese and Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of Mindong diocese in Beijing, and even had face-to-face talks and discussions.

A month later, on the occasion of a retirement ceremony for Bishop Zhuang in the Shantou diocese, Bishop Zhuang and his successor, Bishop Joseph Huang Bingzhang, delivered speeches. Following the ceremony, Bishop Joseph Huang celebrated the Holy Eucharist (Bishop Peter Zhuang did not participate). In this way, the bishop emeritus and his successor were now both recognized by China and the Vatican, bringing hope for reconciliation in the Shantou diocese.

Reconciling two co-existing bishops in one diocese calls for finesse and tact, especially as regards the feelings of the unofficial bishop and his community. The Chinese side adopted a very flexible approach to such a diocese: the official recognition of an unofficial bishop via public concelebration. Since the meeting with Archbishop Celli in Beijing in December 2018, Auxiliary Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin began to participate in the Mass presided by Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu such as the funeral Mass of an old priest of Mindong Diocese. On Holy Thursday, the following year, Auxiliary Bishop Vincent Guo once again led some priests, and participated in the Chrism Mass presided by Bishop Vincent Zhan. Thereafter, under the joint leadership of these two bishops from both sides of the Mindong diocese concelebration and cooperation began to lay the foundation for further reconciliation and communion.

In the four dioceses of Nanyang, Fuzhou, Fengxiang, Shuozhou and Ningbo, bishops were approved by the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, and their own dioceses held inauguration for them.

These seven bishops had been the center of controversy for the Chinese authorities and the Vatican for years. Peaceful resolution finally prevailed. In the process, some bishops made huge sacrifices for the overall wellbeing of the dioceses and of the entire Church in China. May God bless them and the local churches abundantly! Successful implementation of the Provisional Agreement in the above-mentioned seven dioceses brought hope for communion and unity for other dioceses and for the Church in China.

V. Accomplishment IV: Peaceful ordinations of two new bishops

Prior to the Provisional Agreement, episcopal leadership was a sensitive matter in many dioceses, leaving some people dissatisfied. After the Agreement, new bishops-elect could finally be ordained with the recognitions of both the Vatican and China.

On August 26, 2019, in the diocesan cathedral, Rev. Anthony Yao Shun was consecrated as Ordinary Bishop of the Ulanqab Diocese, Inner Mongolia. Four bishops and about a hundred priests attended the solemn celebration. Only two days later, on August 28, 2019, Rev. Stephen Xu Hongwei was ordained as Coadjutor Bishop of the Hanzhong Diocese, Shaanxi Province. The ordination liturgy was concelebrated by eight bishops and more than 80 priests in an atmosphere of joy and harmony. On both occasions, the BCCCC’s acknowledged that “this candidate has been approved by the Pope.” The English version of the Global Times, in its report on Bishop Anthony Yao’s ordination, also confirmed via Bishop Paul Meng Qinglu, the Ordaining Bishop, that the Papal mandate was acknowledged during the ceremony. For the churches outside of China, this may seem natural; however, for the Catholic Church in China, this is highly significant. Obviously, its success is due to the Sino-Vatican Provisional Agreement and to the goodwill of those involved in its implementation.

Matteo Bruni, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, highlighted the fact that the consecration took place “in the framework of the Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China signed in Beijing on September 22, 2018.”The Chinese edition of the Vatican News on August 28, 2019, calls it “the fruit born with the signs of communion and harmony following the signing of the provisional agreement.”

VI. Conclusion

Two years ago, risking flagrant misunderstanding and fierce criticism, the Pope, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and the working team, signed the Provisional Agreement with China. As he took the initiative to recognize seven “self-elected and self-ordained” Chinese bishops, the Pontiff himself was questioned, opposed and ridiculed. And yet, in the past two years, China and the Holy See have resolved a number of challenging issues, including the status of the secretly ordained bishops.

Efforts to improve the relations between China and the Vatican have always attracted criticism. Granted that the contents of the Agreement have not been disclosed, we can still observe the changes brought about by the implementation of the Provisional Agreement and applaud the accomplishments.

Today we would like to share with the Universal Church, from the perspectives of Chinese Catholics, the positive changes brought about by the Agreement. We would also like to invite all the faithful in the love of Christ, to pray for the Church in China, to act as bridges for amicable exchanges between China and the world, and to promote peace. We sincerely hope that the Provisional Agreement be renewed, as this is in the interest of the 1.4 billion people of China and 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide. We pray that the Holy See and China would continue their commitment in building trust in their future negotiations and make contributions to the peace and welfare of the world.

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