Roman Catholic bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang, head of what’s known as the underground Catholic Church in Shanghai, died this week. He was either 95, 96 or 97 years old.
The Catholic leader passed away after a long illness and was under house arrest at the time of his death. Authorities in Shanghai granted permission for Catholics to hold funeral services for the late bishop, including a Mass at St. Ignatius Cathedral. Fan’s body, however, was not allowed to be taken to a church. It remained at a funeral home.
Fan became a Jesuit priest in 1951, but he refused to join China’s official church, known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which rejects the authority of the Vatican in Rome over religious affairs in China. In 1955, Fan began a twenty year stint in prison and labor camps. Along with many others from the Christian faith in China, he was arrested during one of the Communist Party’s political campaigns and sent off to prison in Qinghai province, where his job was reportedly carrying corpses to the cemetery.
With the blessing of John Paul II, Fan became the bishop of Shanghai in 2000. But he was never recognized as such by Chinese authorities and the Catholic leader was put under strict government surveillance. “They carried out a certain kind of house arrest to prevent him from having much contact with the outside world, including Catholics in Shanghai,” Anthony Lam, a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, told the New York Times.
Archbishop Savio Hon Taifai, a Vatican official originally from China, wrote that Fan Zhongliang lived by the Chinese proverb that says, “It’s better to be broken jade than intact tile.”
Within the context of his situation and the political regime, Bishop Fan’s external freedom was always restricted, but not his interior freedom: a good Jesuit through and through, he always embraced God’s will. This is why he was a symbol of freedom for all Catholics because they only thing [sic] he sought was the right to live according to the guarantee of freedom of religion and his loyalty to the Pope. This was also why he had to suffer, but his witness made Catholics even more determined and more in love with their country. They were and are committed to strive for the good of their country and a greater humanization of their city. Love for God and love for the Pope does not preclude love for one’s country.
Hon also made a public plea to the Chinese government to allow another bishop from Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma Daqin – who is currently under house arrest – to celebrate the funeral Mass for the late Bishop Fan.
“It would be a respectful gesture towards religious freedom and towards an elderly person, such as Msgr. Fans. In addition, Msgr. Ma Daqin’s presence would guarantee not only a fitting funeral, but also an experience of fraternity and harmony among Christians, from which the entire city could only benefit.”
Bishop Ma is a controversial figure. He was named Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Shanghai in July 2012, notably, with the approval of both the Vatican and the Chinese government. But during Ma’s ordination ceremony that same summer, he announced that he was quitting the Catholic Patriotic Association. He has not been seen publicly ever since. And cooperation between the Vatican and Beijing on appointing bishops has ground to a halt.
China did not follow up on the suggestion from Father Hon to let Bishop Ma preside at a funeral service for the late Bishop Fan. Had the government done so, it would have been a significant development toward warmer relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the People’s Republic. The two broke off all official diplomatic ties in 1949.
But Pope Francis might have been trying to reach out to China himself recently, when he revealed that he had exchanged letters with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We are close to China,” Francis said in an interview with an Italian newspaper. “I sent a letter to President Xi Jinping when he was elected, three days after me. And he replied. There are relations. It’s a great people that I love.”
In what may be seen as a response to any perceived overtures from Rome, the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times ran a story today quoting an official from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
“China will always safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity and it never allows foreign forces to interfere with religion. The Vatican should respect China in terms of the personnel of a diocese,” Liu Yuanlong, vice president of Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, told the Global Times.
UPDATE: Apart from memorial services held this week, the public funeral for Bishop Fan is evidently scheduled for this weekend, on March 22. That means there is still time for a major breakthrough. It will be interesting to see who is allowed to celebrate the funeral Mass. Someone who closely follows Catholic life in China forwarded me an unconfirmed account that said members of the clergy in Shanghai from both registered (with the CCPA) and unregistered (so-called “underground”) churches were allowed to co-celebrate memorial services there for Bishop Fan. The priests also sang hymns written by Bishop Ma, according to this account.