VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis appointed a Franciscan priest, the Rev. Francesco Cui Qingqi, as the new Catholic bishop of Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, under a controversial power sharing agreement governing the appointment of church leaders in China.
“This is the sixth Chinese bishop to be appointed and ordained within the legal framework of the provisional agreement on bishops’ appointment in China,” Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni told Vatican reporters on Wednesday (Sept. 8).
Francis selected Cui on June 23, and he was ordained as bishop of Wuhan, in the Chinese province of Hubei, on Sept. 1, according to Bruni.
The Vatican signed the provisional agreement with Beijing in 2018 after decades of diplomatic efforts to come to an understanding with Communist Party leaders. Until then, the Catholic hierarchy in in China was split between those under the supervision of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and those who had risen from an underground church loyal to the pope in Rome.
The agreement, which was renewed in 2020, has drawn criticism from Catholics who believe the Vatican is bowing to Beijing and turning a blind eye to the government’s religious freedom violations. Supporters of the deal believe that it paves the way for dialogue and diplomacy while ensuring the survival of local Catholics.
The mostly secretive agreement “does not address diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China nor the legal status of the Chinese Catholic Church or relations between clergy and authorities in the country directly,” according to Vatican media. It does, however, regulate the process of selecting bishops, with the Communist Party selecting nominees for the pope to choose from.
The Wuhan Diocese announced Cui’s episcopal ordination Sunday, as it took place in Wuhan’s Cathedral of St. Joseph. The first two bishops to be appointed in China without the approval of the Holy See were ordained in the same cathedral, which had remained vacant since 1961.
Cui, 57, was born in Shanxi and ordained in 1991. He has occupied various posts in dioceses in China before being selected as an episcopal candidate in September of last year.