Leader of patriotic church seriously ill

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2007, 12:00am

Top bishop's illness sparks succession worries

The Catholic Church in Beijing has mobilised the faithful in the diocese to pray for Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan, who is critically ill with a chronic disease.

The deteriorating health of the leader of the state-sanctioned Catholic Church in the capital could trigger a succession crisis in the church and the official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, chaired by Bishop Fu.

Liu Bainian , a vice-chairman of the association, said Bishop Fu had received the anointment of oil in the past few days - a sacrament reserved for Catholics who are seriously ill.

'There was a complication in his illness and he was transferred to another hospital in Beijing for treatment. It is difficult to say the seriousness of his present condition, but we are all praying for him,' Mr Liu said.

Father Sun Shangen , an elderly priest who has temporarily taken charge of the daily operation of the diocese and who visited Bishop Fu in the past few days, said on Wednesday he was still conscious.

'He was once in a critical situation and his present condition is far from clear. In short, he is very ill,' Father Sun said.

The diocese had asked all parishes to mobilise the faithful to pray for Bishop Fu, 75, who had been treated at Peking Union Medical College Hospital before being transferred.

Church sources said several priests from the Beijing diocese had gone to Bishop Fu's bedside over the weekend, after he underwent emergency treatment.

The bishop's last public appearance at an official function was at the preparatory meeting on March 4 for the annual session of the National People's Congress, of which he is a vice-chairman of the national legislature's standing committee.

Bishop Fu has been the state-sanctioned church's figurehead since becoming chairman of the patriotic association in 1998.

He is also the acting president of the China Catholic Bishops' College.

But his status was not recognised by the Vatican, following his unilateral appointment by Beijing as bishop in 1979 without papal approval.

With Bishop Fu's condition worsening, a crisis is looming over his successor as the Bishop of Beijing and even more importantly, as the head of the patriotic association, which holds the real power in mainland church affairs.

Although Mr Liu, who is a lay church official, has been handling most of the business concerning the mainland church, a bishop whom the government can trust is required to take the mainly ceremonial position.

'This is a matter which has to be addressed soon,' a mainland church source said. 'The task now is to take good care of Bishop Fu before his final moments, and we will consider the next step after that.'

The Beijing Diocese and the Holy See have been considering the issue of an episcopal successor in the capital, but last year's unilateral ordination of bishops by Beijing without the Vatican's approval have complicated this sensitive problem.

Observers believe it will be a daunting task for the patriotic association to find a new leader acceptable to the government as well as most of the bishops recognised by both the government and the Vatican.