CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 23 September 2017

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The unequal funerals

HONG KONG (UCAN): A rushed and hidden burial for the bishop of Urumqi in China’s volatile Xinjiang province and an expansive public ceremony for the bishop of Taiyuan in Shanxi province tell the story of two unequal funerals carried out during August that reflect the difference in attitude of the state authorities towards the official and unofficial Church communities.
 
Bishop Paul Xie Tingzhe died in Urumqi on August 13. His death was quickly followed on the next day with the passing of Bishop Silvester Li Jiantang. Bishop Li was 92-years-old and bishop Xie was 86.
 
Local authorities insisted that the funeral of Bishop Xie, who had recognition from the Vatican but not from the Chinese government, be held within two days of his death with cremation following the service and his ashes interred in Qidongshan Cemetery within 30 minutes.
 
A local parishioner told UCAN, “There are government officials on the funeral committee and they control everything. The arrangement obviously was to cremate the bishop’s body immediately to bar Catholics outside of Xinjiang from coming to pay tribute.”
 
Plans were even made by the government officials on the committee to stop concelebration at his funeral Mass, which was held in his cathedral church in Urumqi on August 16.
 
Father Wang Hong celebrated the Mass that only a few people, including two priests, were able to attend. The other 22 priests in the diocese were prevented from travelling to the cathedral for the occasion.
 
Father Li Zhen conducted the commendation at the crematorium.
 
The extremely restrictive regulations that were placed on the burial of the bishop are rather uncommon these days, prompting one parishioner to comment, “Such restrictions are rare even among unofficial communities in recent years when all the diocesan priests are allowed to concelebrate at the funeral Mass of their bishops.”
 
Local people were surprised at the tight restrictions placed on the funeral, as Bishop Xie had enjoyed a lot of freedom in his lifetime to exercise his ministry, despite the fact that he was not recognised by the government.
 
Born on 1 March 1931, he entered the seminary in the late 1940s. However, the seminary ceased to function in 1951 due to the political turmoil surrounding the incoming rule of the Communist Party.
 
He, together with his fellow students, was labelled as a rightist and a lackey of imperialism. He was imprisoned in 1958 and remained in captivity until 1979. He was ordained a priest in the following year.
 
In his later life he was an active blogger and developed a bit of a following for his singing of Latin hymns during chat sessions.
 
In 1991, Pope John Paul II appointed him as bishop and three years later he was to become one of the few Chinese bishops to ever be granted an audience by the Polish pope when he was able to secretly leave China and travel to Europe.
 
However, the saga of the unequal funerals tells quite a different tale in Shanxi. The coadjutor bishop was the main celebrant at the Mass for his late predecessor on August 17 at the Taiyuan cathedral and some 5,000 people crowded in and around the church to pay their respects to the late bishop.
 
After the Mass, the bishop’s body was moved to his hometown and his successor, Bishop Paul Meng Ningyou, was also expected to conduct the funeral service which was scheduled for August 19 and a large number of mourners were expected to be present.
 
Bishop Li was born in 1925 and entered the minor seminary at the age of 14, eventually being ordained a priest in 1956. 
 
In 1966 he was placed in a reform-through-labour camp and spent the next 14 years working in a textile factory. 
 
In 1980 he was released and moved to a parish in Dongerou where he stayed until moving to the cathedral in 1991.
 
He was ordained a bishop in 1994 and retired in 2013.
 
Michael Chang Chuan-sheng, a China Church historian from Taiwan, said that bishop Li actually never finished his seminary studies, but because he was the oldest in the class his bishop close to ordain him early as the political situation was closing in on them.
 
The seminary was disbanded within two years after his ordination.
 
Chang described him as the only priest from his class and a pillar of the revival of the Church after the Cultural Revolution had ended.
 
However, Bishop Li was recognised by the government as the bishop of Taiyuan and the unequal funerals tell much about the level of importance the authorities place on official recognition.

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