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Bishop Fan: 20 years carrying corpses

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Jesuit Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang has died at the age of 96 after a brief illness. He had been appointed as bishop of the underground Catholic church in Shanghai in 2000. Irish Jesuit James Hurley, who has spent his priestly life in China, remembers Bishop Fan:

“When I visited Shanghai many years ago, a Hong Kong Jesuit, who was well versed on matters with regard to the Church in Mainland China, suggested I visit Bishop Fan. I had some reservations about this suggestion.  So, a few days later, while dining with a priest who staffed the Seminary in Shanghai, I asked the priest sitting next to me for his opinion on this matter. His reply was immediate and quite vigorous: “On no account should you visit him, if you do so he will get into trouble and so will you. He will be asked what you said to him and what you gave him, and you will be black-listed – don’t expect to get back to China in the next few years.” So I quietly abandoned the idea and decided not to tempt Providence.

Bishop Fan was born on Jan. 13th, 1918, into a non-Catholic family. He was baptised at the age of 14, got to know the Society of Jesus and joined the Society in 1938 at the age of twenty. He was ordained a priest in 1951, just two years after the major political changes in China, when Mao and the Communists took over. He refused to recognize the Chinese government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association when it was established. Like many other Catholic leaders, he served in prison after he and other priests were arrested in 1955 during a government crackdown. From 1958 to 1978, Fan was imprisoned in Qinghai province, where his job was to carry corpses in a cemetery.

What about his final vows? In our Jesuit Catalogues each one of us is assigned four dates – birth, entry, ordination and final vows. Bishop Fan’s spot for final vows is empty, and has been so for some years. Why? I did ask this question once but did not get a convincing reply. True the respondent was a youngish priest who had just taken over the China Mainland desk, a position which is highly sensitive. But I do intend to follow up on this matter.  

Bishop Fan joined the Society on the same day as Aloysius Jin. Both became Bishops in the same city: one in the official Church, and the other in the unofficial underground Church. Both lived in the same city.  Did they ever meet?   It is said that they did get together on one occasion to discuss the question of a successor, and failed to agree – not an altogether Jesuit phenomenon! But I repeat my “it is said”. There is no solid foundation for this story, and Bishop Jin did say on one occasion that Chinese Intelligence is like God – they know everything: in such a set-up one might think twice about crossing the city to consult a confrere and colleague!

Shanghai has lost a steadfast and persevering leader in Fan. He was secretly ordained as coadjutor bishop of Shanghai in 1985 when Bishop Ignatius Kung Pin-mei remained incarcerated in a government jail. Kung died in 2000, and Pope John Paul named Fan his successor. However, the late Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai, another Jesuit who spent 18 years in prison during the communist repression, was recognized by the government as bishop of Shanghai in 1989. He did not reconcile his status with the Vatican until early in the 21st century, according to information on the diocesan website.

So much for dear Bishop Fan. The complexities of his position followed him to the grave. In a curious gesture the Communists confiscated his biretta, as though that was what made him a bishop. They forbade a funeral Mass in the Cathedral – it would have seemed like a recognition of his episcopacy. No bishop appeared at his funeral, but 5000 people crowded the funeral parlour from which he was buried, and 70 priests concelebrated there in a ceremony that lasted three hours.  Let us salute him – a man of truly heroic mould, humble, prayerful and accessible. Let us pray for his soul.  Let us also pray for the Church in Shanghai. Just now they are without a bishop. Bishop Ma who was consecrated in 2012 is under some kind of house-arrest, not allowed to function as a bishop. Bishop Jin, his predecessor, also disappeared around the same time and died some months later.