By Elise Ann Allen
ROME (Crux) — For the first time since brokering a controversial deal with China on the appointment of bishops four years ago, the Vatican Saturday called out Beijing for violating the terms of the accord by installing a bishop in a diocese not recognized by Rome.
Bishop John Peng Weizhao was clandestinely appointed bishop of the papally recognized Diocese of Yujiang by Pope Francis in 2014, four years before the Vatican struck its provisional agreement with China in 2018. As a so-called “underground” prelate, Bishop Peng Weizhao was arrested and held by Chinese authorities for six months. He was eventually released, but his ministry was closely monitored by local authorities.
However, on Nov. 24 he joined state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic organizations in a ceremony marking his installation as auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Jiangxi, which is an ecclesiastic territory approved by Chinese authorities but not recognized by Rome.
According to AsiaNews, some 200 people took part in the ceremony, which was held in Nanchang and presided over by the local bishop, John Baptist Li Suguang, who also serves as vice president of the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference, which is also not recognized by the Holy See.
In a Nov. 26 statement, the Vatican said they learned of Bishop Peng Weizhao’s installation “with surprise and regret,” saying the Chinese diocese of Jiangxi is “not recognized by the Holy See.”
“This event did not take place in accordance with the spirit of dialogue existing between the Vatican side and the Chinese side and with what was stipulated in the Provisional Agreement on the Appointment of Bishops, dated September 22, 2018,” the statement said.
The Vatican said they had also received information stating that Bishop Peng Weizhao’s civil recognition was preceded “by long and heavy pressure from the local authorities.”
“The Holy See hopes that similar episodes will not be repeated, and awaits appropriate communications on the matter from the authorities and reaffirms its full willingness to continue respectful dialogue concerning all issues of common interest,” they said.
Bishop Peng Weizhao, 56, studied at the National Seminary in Beijing and was ordained a priest in 1989, succeeding Bishop Thomas Zeng Jingmu as bishop of Yujiang following his appointment by Pope Francis in 2014.
Bishop Zeng Jingmu, who was also an “underground” bishop, was arrested and spent 23 years in prison. He died in 2016 at the age of 93.
Brokered in 2018, the provisional agreement between China and the Holy See was never made public, however, as part of the deal Pope Francis agreed to lift the excommunication on seven bishops ordained without the Vatican’s permission and it is believed the pope was given the final pick from a selection of candidates proposed by Chinese authorities.
Over the past four years, the deal, which was renewed for the second time in October, has been heavily disputed and criticized by prominent churchmen such as Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen, who on Friday was convicted by a Hong Kong court under a Beijing-imposed national security law over his support of the city’s pro-democracy movement.
The Vatican has yet to issue a statement on Zen’s conviction.