Vatican recognised Bishop Peter Fang Jianping represented the Catholic Church in the Olympic torch relay last week while Pope Benedict has sent a message to Chinese games organisers and athletes calling on them to do their best in the "Olympic spirit".UCA News reports that Coadjutor Bishop Peter Fang Jianping of Tangshan has become the first Catholic bishop to carry the Olympic torch on its way to Beijing, after a Catholic priest did so in June.
Bishop Fang, 45, represented the Catholic Church during the July 31 torch relay in Tangshan, a city 180 kilometres east of the capital. The prelate was the eighth of 208 torch bearers during the relay's last leg in Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing municipality.
Bishop Fang told UCA News that he was invited to join this historical run in light of two developments.
Firstly, the Chinese government has made progress in recent years in carrying out its religious policies and in expressing concerns over religious issues to religious leaders, the prelate said.
Secondly, the local Church's active participation in social affairs has garnered the appreciation of the government and public, he said. "Because of the Church's contribution to the society, I was named a torchbearer."
Bishop Fang noted that Tangshan diocese, which has about 45,000 Catholics including 40 priests, has donated money and materials worth 150,000 yuan (about A$25,000) to the quake stricken area in Sichuan through local religious department and charity bodies.
An 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan on May 12. As of July 29, the government said 69,200 were confirmed killed in the disaster with 18,195 still missing.
Torchbearers are allowed keep the torch as a souvenir after their run, but some have sold or donated it. Bishop Fang said he will keep this "precious spiritual legacy."
Bishop Fang, a Hebei native, was ordained a priest in 1989. He was ordained a bishop in Beijing on January 6, 2000, without papal approval.
In 2002, the Holy See legitimised his episcopal status. He has worked with 89 year old Bishop John Liu Jinghe of Tangshan, and has been a deputy of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, since last March.
Two other religious leaders also were torchbearers in Tangshan.
Imam Han Shujun, the 42nd torchbearer, has served at a mosque in Tangshan's Kaiping district since 1989. The Muslim prayer leader is currently president of Tangshan Islam Association.
Reverend Jin Yunpeng, chairperson of the Hebei Protestant Church's Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee, was the 161st torchbearer. He has set up a Protestant training center, a Church newspaper, an orphanage and a charity clinic in Hebei. Both he and Imam Han are members of the provincial People's Political Consultative Conference.Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Pope Benedict sent China best wishes for a successful Olympics on Sunday, saying the games should be an example of human dignity and peaceful coexistence.
"I am following this great sporting event, the most important and anticipated on the world level, with great fondness," he told several thousand people in northern Italy where he is on a two week holiday near the Austrian border.
It was significant that the pope sent specific greetings to China, whose communist government does not allow its Catholics to recognise his authority and forces them to be members of a state backed Catholic organisation, Reuters says.
Pope Benedict has made improving relations with China a main goal of his pontificate and hopes that diplomatic ties broken off two years after the 1949 communist takeover could be restored.
The pope said he wanted to send greetings to China as well as organisers and athletes, hoping that each will do their best "in the genuine Olympic spirit" to make the games a success.
"I hope they offer the international community a valid example of co-existence among people of different backgrounds in the respect of mutual dignity," he said in this bi-lingual town in the northern Alto-Adige region that was once part of Austria.
"May sport once again be a symbol of fraternity and peace among peoples," he said, after his traditional Sunday prayer in front of the cathedral of Bressanone, which is also known by its German name Brixen.
In another sign of a thaw in once icy relations between the Vatican and Beijing, the pope is expected to be represented at Friday's opening ceremonies by a Hong Kong bishop.
Hebei Catholic Bishop Carries Olympic Torch (UCA News, 1/8/08)
Catholic bishop carries Olympic torch in China relay (Catholic News Agency, 1/8/08)
Pope says Olympics should be sign of human dignity (Reuters, 3/8/08)