Catholic clergy face crucial choice
For most Catholics, the Christmas season is a time of festivity. But for some clergy on the mainland it could mark the end of what has been years of thawing relations between their church and the Vatican.
The clerics will have to decide whether to attend a national congress of Catholics - an event opposed by the Vatican on the grounds that it will breach Catholic doctrine - to be held in Beijing as early as this week.
The dispute comes against the background of the state-backed church's ordination of Joseph Guo Jincai as bishop of the Chengde diocese in Hebei earlier this month, which also contradicted the wishes of the Holy See.
However, Anthony Liu Bainian - a vice-chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which controls the state-backed church on the mainland - said the Eighth National Congress of Catholic Representatives 'will no longer be delayed and will definitely be held, very soon', although the date has yet to be confirmed.
The congress, which is meant to be held every five years, is supposed to be the highest governing body of the mainland church. It includes the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China and the association.
But since the previous meeting in 2004, when more than 300 bishops, priests, nuns and lay believers met, the body has delayed its general meeting several times because of the political environment.
But with the death of the heads of the association and the bishops' conference - neither recognised by the Holy See - in recent years, the vacancies must be filled.
Liu, who has influence in the mainland church, also needs to consolidate his position.
The recent ordination of Guo by eight mainland bishops prompted the Vatican to issue a statement condemning it as 'illicit', as they had no papal mandate. The Holy See threatened excommunication for all the bishops involved and accused Beijing of damaging bilateral relations.
Observers saw the strongly worded statement as a deterrent to those mainland bishops recognised by the Pope against attempts to maintain good relations with the authorities by co-operating with them.
Hardliners on the Vatican side, including outspoken former Hong Kong bishop Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, have long suggested that taking a stance against Beijing's pressure at all costs is better than straying from Catholic doctrine.
One reason the Vatican opposes the holding of the congress is that instead of bishops being the ultimate custodians of church affairs, officials of the patriotic association and the government always take the lead.
During the months before Guo's ordination, both sides warmed to a compromise in which the association and the bishops' conference would have separate meetings - partially addressing the Vatican's concerns.
Anthony Lam Sui-ki, a senior researcher at the Hong Kong diocese's Holy Spirit Study Centre, said this was an option that could relieve the mounting tension.
'The situation can improve somewhat if there is a clear separation of the two bodies in the congress. This way, the bishops can be seen as not being under government control,' Lam said.
But Beijing's move to ordain Guo was seen by the Vatican as a deliberately provocative move, and it has seriously damaged the mutual goodwill built up in previous rounds of dialogue. Beijing and the Vatican do not have diplomatic relations.
Last month, a high-level Vatican commission on China affairs, of which Zen is a member, affirmed its stance that no bishop should attend the congress, although it has made no visible move to reiterate it to individual bishops on the mainland.
This apparent lack of action was seen by some Beijing officials as a softening from the commission's hardline statement issued after its plenary session in March, when the Vatican warned that any bishops attending the congress would affect their communion with the Pope.
Last month, Liu's supporters started to mobilise the clergy and leaders of lay believers in several provinces, forming delegations to attend the congress.
The turnout will be taken by the Vatican and Beijing as a key reference point for their future policies towards each other, as it will serve as a barometer of where the loyalties of the 60-odd mainland bishops lie.