Vatican-backed bishop leads reopening Mass

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 February, 2007, 12:00am

Guangzhou's Sacred Heart Cathedral reopened after a 21/2-year restoration yesterday with a Mass by its Vatican-approved bishop-elect.

However, hopes that Father Joseph Gan Junqiu would be ordained as bishop at the same time were dashed, with observers saying they believed the Vatican had announced its approval too early.

Father Gan celebrated early Mass with more than 1,000 Catholics from Guangzhou and other dioceses in the province as well as a group of visitors from Hong Kong and a handful of foreigners.

Light streamed in through new stained-glass windows telling stories from the New and Old Testaments as Father Gan exhorted his flock: 'Let our faith be as steadfast as Stone House [as the cathedral is popularly known].'

Many in the congregation, which has been without a bishop since James Lin Bingliang died in 2001, had hoped that there would have been a double celebration of Father Gan's ordination and the cathedral's reopening.

'I was mistaken. I thought it was the consecration of the bishop today,' said Francis Vrijmoed, a retired Dutch civil servant who travelled from Hong Kong for the ceremony.

A Hong Kong Catholic who is active in the mainland church and asked not to be identified said: 'They [the Vatican] spoke too soon so people don't like it.' The Vatican approved Father Gan's promotion before the state-backed church organisation had made its decision.

Lu Guocun , vice-chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, said after an official ceremony outside the cathedral following Mass that Father Gan 'is a very good priest' and his name had been submitted to the council of bishops for approval.

Mr Lu said no date had been fixed for the ordination, but some insiders thought it was likely to be on March 19, the day of Father Gan's patron saint.

'If the Vatican is using the media to announce the approval of Father Gan, we are happy. Last year's election was a normal, democratic and open election,' Mr Lu said.

'About 10 young priests who met the requirements were nominated and the votes were concentrated on Father Gan. It's not the government or the patriotic association that decided on the candidate.'

Mr Lu stressed that even if the Vatican was unhappy, the mainland would still select and ordain its own bishops until relations with the Holy See were normalised and an agreement was signed on how bishops were to be elected.

While the government has its own views on the naming of bishops, the church sent a loud message during mass about who its man was.

A foreign priest, who asked not to be identified, said it was curious that there was no concelebration of the Mass by Bishop Liao Hongqing of Meizhou and other priests in attendance yesterday.

'This is a very happy occasion but I am very sad. As a priest I should be up there with them,' he said, adding the government should go one step further after the restoration of the church to take it beyond its cosmetic meaning and give priests more room to serve their parish.

The Guangzhou government spent 21 million yuan restoring the church, with Mayor Zhang Guangning visiting the building to make arrangements for the repairs. The parish put up 3 million yuan.

Guangzhou has 13,000 Catholics, according to figures given by the church.