As the church hierarchy is ageing, few younger bishops are willing to step forward A succession crisis is looming over the leadership of the official Catholic church, with few younger bishops willing to step forward to succeed ageing leaders. At the seventh National Catholic Congress last month, Bishop Fu Tieshan was re-elected chairman of the China Catholic Patriotic Association and Bishop Liu Yuanren as president of the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China. Both are in their seventies. Members of the presidium and secretariat are all advanced in years. Before the congress, held every five years but postponed from last year because of the Sars outbreak, hopes ran high that new blood would be brought into the leadership of a body that represents the half-million Catholics in the government-approved open church. The congress was attended by 262 clergy members, nuns and lay people in Beijing from July 7 to 9. The Bishops' Conference was held at the same time. In two preparatory meetings, church leaders discussed a proposal to set an age limit on the chairman and secretaries of the national and provincial Catholic Patriotic Association as well as the Bishops' Conference, but the problem was finding the right candidates, church sources said. Bishop Fu, who holds an important political post as vice-chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, was expected to continue heading the Patriotic Association, but other elderly bishops were keen on passing the baton to the younger generation. Optimistic observers noted that the young bishops, many of whom were endorsed by Rome, were viewed as more likely to promote conciliation with the underground church, which refuses to submit to government control. Recent trends in religious policy pointed to tighter regulations through what the central government calls the 'democratisation' of church governance. By raising public participation in church decisions, the government sought to strengthen the power of the Patriotic Association, which comprises clergy and laymen, and squeeze what little autonomy the bishops' conference had, they said. Energetic and visionary young bishops were reluctant to come forward to serve in the Patriotic Association. Many did not attend the Bishops' Conference, which barely met the quorum, the sources said. But overseas observers said some young bishops were on the fast track to gaining national prominence, and they would become the next generation of church leaders. Among those mentioned were the three young bishops consecrated in January 2000 - Bishop Zhan Silu of Fujian province , Lu Xinping of Nanjing and Fang Jianping of Hebei province . Jia Qinglin , chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, in his opening speech to the congress said the Chinese Catholic Church must never uphold the principle of ordaining its own bishops. Summing up the Sixth National Catholic Congress' work, Bishop Fu said 700 new churches were built, 540,000 people were baptised, 613 priests were ordained, and 15 bishops and eight auxiliary bishops consecrated in the past six years. Officially the mainland has 5.3 million Catholics and 1,700 priests, more than 3,000 nuns and 2,000 seminarians. Vatican officials estimate there are as many as 10 million Catholics in both official and unofficial churches.