Within hours of his ordination as Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai on July 7, 2012, Thaddeus Ma Daqin was taken away by some unknown men sent by the Chinese authorities, and has not been seen in public since.

This 54-year-old charismatic priest from Shanghai diocese was ordained bishop with the approval of Pope Benedict and the Chinese authorities. In the eyes of both, he was destined to succeed the 96-year old Aloysius Jin Luxian as Bishop of Shanghai.

That will not happen now. The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) and the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC) made this clear in a statement from Beijing on December 12. They announced the revocation of his letter of appointment as “coadjutor bishop,” having accused him of breaking State regulations and bishops’ conference rules at the ordination ceremony. They banned him from priestly ministry for two years, and asked the Shanghai diocese “to deal with him in a serious manner.”

They issued their verdict following an “investigation” into his alleged crimes, and after holding him under house arrest at Sheshan seminary on the outskirts of Shanghai since July 7. They had him detained there in almost total isolation from the outside world, deprived of freedom of movement and freedom of speech. They prohibited him from wearing the bishop’s insignia at Mass, and prevented the seminarians from returning to their seminary since August, lest he make contact with them and the staff.

To understand the reason for this unprecedented humiliation and ill-treatment of a newly-ordained bishop, one has to go back to the July 7 ordination.

Prior to that, the Chinese authorities proposed that an illegitimate bishop (that is, one ordained without papal approval) should participate in the ceremony. Both the elderly Bishop Jin and bishop-elect Ma said no, but the authorities imposed their will.

During the ceremony in St. Ignatius Cathedral, Bishop Jin and the two co-consecrating bishops (all three in communion with Rome) laid hands on Ma Daqin, but when the illegitimate bishop came forward with two other (legitimate) bishops to do likewise, Bishop Ma got up and embraced them, thereby preventing them from doing so. They were also prevented from receiving Communion at Mass; only Ma and the two consecrating bishops did so.

While all this made the authorities angry, Bishop Ma’s next step made them furious. In a thank-you speech at the ceremony’s end, Ma, showing great courage and leadership, announced that he was abandoning all positions of responsibility in the Patriotic Association (CPA) so as to devote himself entirely to his ministry as a bishop in the Church.

At that time, Ma was vice-chairman of Shanghai CPA and a member of the national CPA standing committee. (The CPA was established by the Communist authorities in the late 1950s to control the mainland Catholic Church, but in his 2007 Letter to Catholics in China, Pope Benedict said the CPA and the BCCCC are “incompatible” with Catholic doctrine.)

On hearing Bishop Ma announce that he was quitting the CPA, the 1,200 Catholics present in the cathedral broke into sustained, thunderous applause. It was the first time in memory — and perhaps ever — that a bishop of the “open” Church had made such an audacious statement at his ordination. Government authorities at the ceremony were stunned; they interpreted his words as a direct challenge to their 64-year-old system of control of the Church. Ma had set a precedent which they feared others might follow. He had to be punished. They confined him in Sheshan seminary and for five months sought to break his spirit and get him to recant. But he resisted with courage, and so they deposed him. He will never become bishop of Shanghai.

News of Ma’s courageous stance travelled like wildfire across China, inspiring Catholics everywhere and sparking great solidarity with him. His inspiring gesture had an extraordinary effect on Shanghai’s Catholics; it united clergy and faithful alike from both the “open” and “underground” Church communities in a way that has not happened since the early 1950s when the Communists started persecuting the Church there. At the same time, his defiant act caused consternation among the Chinese authorities and State entities that control the Church, especially the CPA, hence the harsh punishment.

Since his “house arrest,” Bishop Ma’s only way of communicating with the outside world has been through his blog.

There, on November 3, he published a truly inspiring testimony called “The Faith of a Child.” In it, he revealed that his father did not want him to become a priest, because “his father, his younger brother and he himself were all jailed because of their Catholic faith” and “he did not wish to see his beloved son suffering the same hardship.”

But when Ma insisted on entering the seminary and preparing for priesthood, his father said to him: “If you are determined to go, do not come back and do not give up when you are halfway through.” Ma said, “I did not hesitate to answer, ‘Of course!’”

Concluding his blog, Bishop Ma said: “I have kept this promise until today. I am going to keep it until the day I grow old, if God wishes me to live to an old age.”

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