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History-making bishop mourned

FENGXIANG (SE): Bishop Lucas Li Jingfeng, who was emboldened in 1980 to take a step in disobedience to the Church by accepting episcopal ordination from his predecessor in Fengxiang, Bishop Anthony Zhou Weidao, without a mandate from the Holy See, died at 7.20am on November 17.
Bishop Li was standing at the door of an unprecedented era in Church history as he was one of the first bishops in China to be ordained on an ordain now and notify later basis, which later received approbation from Pope John Paul II, a dispensation that remained in effect until it was rescinded by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.
Bishop Zhou had been one of a triumvirate that met at the time the Cultural Revolution was dying down to discuss the dilemmas facing the Church in China that had been effectively isolated from the rest of the world.
Unable to communicate with anyone outside the country, Bishop Zhou, along with Bishop Fan Xueyan and 56-year-old Father Li had just been released from prison.
They came together to consider the present and future of an isolated Church without bishops, finally making the daring move of taking responsibility into their own hands and going ahead.
They wrote a note in Latin detailing the rationale for their action, which eventually found its way to Pope John Paul.
“This was the start of a movement unique in the history of the whole Church, at least for the dimensions that it took,” Father Giancarlo Politi wrote in Tripod (Winter 2011).
Bishop Li succeeded Bishop Zhou as the bishop in 1983 and continued to head a diocese unusual in the sense that it was probably the only one in China where only the unofficial community of the Church existed—there was no office of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
However the winds of change finally reached the back blocks of Sha’anxi province and in 2001 an office of the State Administration for Religious Affairs was set up, beginning a time of repressive curtailing of the activities of the Church with the aim of forcing people to join the Patriotic Association.
Bishop Li was removed from the scene for a solid and lengthy session of reeducation, but eventually was allowed to return in 2004, when he was recognised by the government as the bishop, but ironically not forced to join the Patriotic Association.
Nevertheless, it was the birth of the official community of the Church in the diocese and the end of a unique era in the Catholic history of China.
Bishop Li’s influence was to spread far beyond the confines of his hinterland diocese. In August 2012 he published a pastoral letter, Reflection on the Year of Faith, suggesting 16 pointers, which he explained in great detail, that people could use to prepare themselves for the special year.
He pointed to what he called a crisis in the relationship between faith and reason in the world of today, especially in the area of the relationship between faith and superstition, as well as the revelation of God, the transmission of that revelation, the scriptures, tradition and the magisterium of the Church.
It was used widely around the country.
He described the living witness to the faith as being the example of the martyrs and the letters of the apostles of today, stressing that people need a far more educated faith in order to be viable witness in their everyday lives and moving to set up a series of study sessions across his diocese.
A letter he wrote to the Synod of Bishops on Eastern Churches in 2012 was read out on the floor of the meeting in Rome, in which he presented the 50 years of repression of the Church in China as a strong witness to fidelity to faith in modern world, contrasting it with the tepidity of the Catholic people of Europe.
Bishop Li wrote in thanking the worldwide Church for its support, “We know that the suffering the joys and the prayers of being a Christian in China are appreciated by God and encouraged by all Christians of the world.”
In reply, the synod fathers said, “Even if you and other Catholic bishops of China could not attend, we considered you as spiritually present.”
The former bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, told the Vatican Insider at the time that watching the faces of the bishops in the conference hall, he could see that they were vitally interested in what the bishop in far off China had to say and they appreciated his intervention.
In November 2010, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun told AsiaNews that in recent years he had observed many pastors from the unofficial community of the Church in China coming out of hiding.
He listed the acceptance of Bishop Li by the government as a prime example, saying that his honesty was what won the support of both the government and his own people in making the move.
He also noted that what he had achieved was something highly difficult, as the government at the time was highly reluctant to give recognition to bishops who had been ordained clandestinely in the past and the people were wary of government control.
The diocese is now under the care of Bishop Peter Li Huiyuan, who was expected to preside at the funeral of Bishop Li on November 25.
Bishop Li often said during his final days, “God gives, God will take back and I am fully prepared to see the Lord, any time.”
The time has come. May he rest in peace.

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