By Nicole Winfield
The Associated Press
VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI insisted last week on his exclusive right to ordain bishops as he consecrated a Chinese prelate in an implicit challenge to attempts by China’s official church to ordain bishops without his approval.
Monsignor Savio Hon Tai-Fai, a 60-year-old Salesian prelate from Hong Kong, was one of five bishops ordained by Benedict in St. Peter’s Basilica.
His elevation comes amid a new low point in relations between the Holy See and Beijing over the Chinese state-backed church’s ordination of bishops without papal consent.
Benedict didn’t refer specifically to China in his homily, but insisted in general on the duty and need for the pope to name bishops and ensure apostolic succession. He said one of the key jobs of a bishop is to ensure that there is an “uninterrupted chain of communion” with the apostles.
“You, my dear brothers, have the mission to conserve this Catholic communion,” Benedict said. “You know that the Lord entrusted St. Peter and his successors to be the center of this communion, the guarantors of being in the totality of the apostolic communion and the faith.”
China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the communist seizure of power. Although only state-backed Catholic churches are recognized, millions of other Chinese belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.
Dialogue has been used to ease tensions, but a main sticking point has been the Chinese church’s insistence that it — not the pope — has the right to appoint bishops.
The sides had come to a fragile accommodation in recent years whereby Rome tacitly approved the bishops nominated by Beijing. But that appeared to break down late last year when the Chinese church ordained a bishop who did not have the pope’s approval, a move it said it was forced to take because of a lack of response from the Vatican.
The frictions worsened after a meeting in December of about 300 bishops, priests, and laymen in Beijing, at which Bishop Ma Yinglin — who is not recognized by the Holy See — was chosen as head of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church of China.
The Vatican at the time condemned the meeting as a violation of religious freedom and human rights.
There were reports that some prelates loyal to Rome had been forced to attend.
Hon was recently named No. 2 in the Vatican’s missionary office, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. He has said he hopes to be a bridge between Rome and Bejing, and that his high-profile appointment was a sign of the pope’s love for China.
During the solemn Mass, which began with a biblical reading in Chinese, the five new bishops prostrated themselves before the altar. The men then kneeled as dozens of bishops placed their hands on their heads in prayer. ♦