SAIQI, China — A Chinese Catholic bishop at the center of a dispute between the Vatican and China said on Sunday that he would respect any deal worked out between the two powers. But he cautioned that the Chinese authorities still had a hard time accepting the idea that Catholics should not be completely under their control.
The bishop, Guo Xijin, 59, is one of at least two “underground” bishops — those recognized by the Roman Catholic Church but not by the Chinese authorities — who have been asked by the Vatican to step down in favor of Communist-approved bishops.
Bishop Guo has spent numerous stints in detention and currently lives under police surveillance.
Last year, a Vatican delegation visited Bishop Guo and asked him to serve under the government-appointed bishop, Zhan Silu, in this diocese of southeastern China. The Vatican had condemned Bishop Zhan’s installation as bishop because it had not been approved by Rome.
The concession would be part of a historic deal that Rome and Beijing have been negotiating; it could heal a nearly 70-year rift between the two sides and give the Vatican a say in who runs the church in China.
Speaking in his first interview since news of the deal broke last month, Bishop Guo said that if he was presented with an verifiably authentic document from the Vatican, “then we must obey Rome’s decision.”
“Our consistent stand is to respect the deal made between the Vatican and the Chinese government,” Bishop Guo said before evening Mass at the underground cathedral in this small town. “Our principle is that the Chinese Catholic Church must have a connection with the Vatican; the connection cannot be severed.”
But Bishop Guo said that in his numerous dealings with the Chinese authorities, he had sensed an unwillingness to let the Vatican have the final say over Catholic spiritual life.
“The Chinese government doesn’t say explicitly that we need to disconnect” from Rome, he said. But when the authorities speak of a Chinese church that is run independently, he added, “in some circumstances it has such an implication.”
Under President Xi Xinping, the authorities have demolished a number of churches, reflecting the government’s fear that Christianity is a Western influence it cannot control and a threat to the authority of the ruling Communist Party.
The government has tried to break the underground Catholic church for decades. When China set up the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Organization in 1957 and began appointing bishops, many Catholics refused to attend their services or those of the priests they appointed. Today, about half of the estimated 10 million to 12 million Catholics in the country worship in the underground church.
Bishop Guo was preceded by one of China’s most important bishops, Vincent Huang Shoucheng, who died in 2016, having spent 35 years in labor camps or prisons. Bishop Guo presided over Bishop Huang’s funeral but was ordered by the authorities not to do so as bishop, but simply as a priest.
Even now, Bishop Guo is still not allowed to wear a miter and hold his bishop’s staff, with the authorities insisting he wear only the robes of an ordinary priest. He says he is also under constant surveillance and is forced to report his movements to the police. Last year he was detained for 20 days.
But as Bishop Guo spoke, the power of the underground Catholic Church in this part of the country was on full display. Sitting on a couch as scores of worshipers filed into church, believers stopped by to kneel before him, asking for blessings. After placing his hands on their heads and then helping them up, he often received donations of up to the equivalent of $80 — a significant amount in a hilly, rural part of the country.
Bishop Guo’s diocese of Mindong in southeastern Fujian Province has been a center of Catholicism in China since the 17th century. It has about 80,000 believers, many in villages and small towns like Saiqi.
He said the authorities don’t realize that cutting the local church off from the global church made local Catholics into “second-class believers.” While Catholics from other countries can make the rules that the global church members live by, Chinese aren’t allowed by Beijing to participate.
“I once said to the Chinese government that when you restrict churches in China to contact Rome, in fact you are slapping your own face,” he said. “We need to participate so that the Chinese voice” can be heard within the larger church.
Taking the long view, however, Bishop Guo said that restrictions on Chinese Catholics had loosened.
“I think the government is gradually opening it up,” he said. “Though in this regard, the government still has a little bit of concern.”