A nun decorates the church in preparation for the funeral of Bishop Anthony Xu Jiwei of Taizhou. (Photo supplied)
Chinese authorities have again taken the underground bishop from the famously Christian city of Wenzhou away on "gardening leave" to a remote province in China's northwest as another bishop in his province passed way over the weekend.
Under regular circumstances, Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin, who was entrusted by the Vatican to take care of the underground community in Taizhou Diocese in 2010, would preside over the funeral of Bishop Anthony Xu Jiwei who passed away without any known successor to lead the small open government-sanctioned community.
Bishop Xu died on Sept. 25 at age 81. His situation had been critical since being hospitalized on Sept. 7. His funeral Mass is scheduled for the evening of Sept. 29 with the final rite to be held the next morning.
The situation underscores ongoing tension between the Vatican and Beijing even as the two sides continue talks to try and harmonize the appointment of bishops that were resumed in 2014 after a period where all relations were frozen for several decades.
At the center of this issue is that Bishop Shao — who is recognized by the Vatican but not the government or the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Catholic Patriotic Association — was the coadjutor of Wenzhou whose Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang died on Sept. 7.
However, after Bishop Zhu's death, Bishop Shao and was taken to Qinghai province by the authorities to prevent him from presiding over the funeral of his predecessor on Sept. 13.
Bishop Shao was subsequently returned to Wenzhou after the funeral but has now been taken back to Qinghai, sources have told ucanews.com.
When Bishop Shao initially returned from northwest China, he underwent a medical check up for stomach problems in Nanjing in neighboring Jiangsu province, according to the church source in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province.
"He was supposed to return to the diocese today after the check up but is now taken away to Qinghai again. The diocesan chancellor Father Paul Jiang Sunian was also taken to Qinghai a few days ago," said the source on Sept. 26.
It is not certain if Bishop Shao's second "gardening leave" was related to the death of Bishop Xu of Taizhou or the Holy See's confirmation on Sept. 21 that Bishop Shao succeeded late Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang as the bishop of Wenzhou, the source said.
"Gardening leave" is a Western euphemism whereby an employee who is leaving a job (having resigned or been made redundant) is instructed to stay away from work during the notice period, while still remaining on the payroll.
The wealthy coastal province of Zhejiang is one of China's Christian strongholds with an estimated 2 million Protestants and about 200,000 Catholics — out of an estimated 60 million Christians in the country's 31 provinces and four metropolitan administrative areas. A government-led cross removal campaign, which lasted from late 2013 to around March 2016, saw more than 1,700 crosses removed from Christian churches in the province.
Bishop Xu and the Taizhou Diocese
Taizhou is a small diocese with only nine priests and 3,000 regular churchgoers in the open community, and three underground priests serving a few thousand Catholics in that community.
There is no publicly known candidate to succeed Bishop Xu, who had dual approval from the Vatican and the Chinese government to manage the open community.
"Bishop Xu has always worried for the future of the diocese. He might have an arrangement for that but we cannot make superficial guesses, as the China church is complicated. Many things could not be discussed on the table," a source in Taizhou told ucanews.com.
The late bishop was born in Shanghai in April 1935. He studied in the minor seminary in Ningbo and the regional Sheshan seminary in Shanghai during 1948-58. During the 1960s he was imprisoned for five years because of his faith and then worked as a reformed laborer until 1985, which included being assigned to work as a high school teacher for six years.
In 1985, he attended a refresher course at Sheshan seminary to prepare for his priestly ordination that same year. He returned to serve in Ningbo Diocese in 1987 and was sent to serve in Taizhou 12 years later. He was consecrated Bishop of Taizhou in 2010.
"Bishop Xu worked selflessly for the church and lived a frugal life. He came to serve at a time when the diocese was most in need," said Father Zhang Hongfei, who is studying in Rome.
"There were only seminarians and no priest in the diocese in 1990s. The then Father Xu had to make many trips to northern China to seek help from other dioceses," the priest said.