Octogenarian Bishop of Yanzhou Lived, Died On The Road

2005-08-29 00:00:00

A hard-working 85-year-old bishop in eastern China, who dedicated his life to pastoral care and traveled alone to visit Catholics in the countryside, apparently died on his way to make a pastoral visit.

Bishop Thomas Zhao Fengwu of Yanzhou was discovered, gravely ill on Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption, by passersby on the roadside near Tengzhou city. Yanzhou, 500 kilometers south of Beijing, and Tengzhou, about another 60 kilometers southeast, are in Shandong province.

The bishop, who was recognized by the government and approved by the Holy See, died that night, before his priests were notified of his whereabouts.

According to Church sources, police first thought Bishop Zhao was a homeless person, as nobody in the vicinity knew him and he was not wearing a clerical outfit. Local police apparently did not know the meaning of the words "zhu jiao" (bishop) on his identification card, sources said.

Father John Sun Jianbo of Yanzhou diocese, who serves as parish priest in Jining, told UCA News Aug. 22 that he was informed by telephone of the bishop´s death only the morning after. He and a layman rushed to the scene, where they identified Bishop Zhao´s body in the presence of police and then transferred it back to Jining, the priest recounted.

"His health was quite good. We suspect he might have got heatstroke that afternoon while he traveled on the road, as daytime temperatures can reach 35 degrees Celsius or above in August," said Father Sun, 35.

About 600 people attended the funeral Mass that Bishop Fang Xingyao of Linyi led on the morning of Aug. 19 at Jining Church. Bishop Joseph Zhao Fengchang of Liaocheng, a native of the late bishop´s village, Coadjutor Bishop Zhang Xianwang of Jinan and 13 priests concelebrated. All the bishops are from dioceses in Shandong.

The late bishop´s body was cremated afterwards, and his ashes were buried beside the tomb of Saint Joseph Freinademetz (1852-1908), a Divine Word missioner, in the graveyard at Daijiazhuang Church, in the suburbs of Jining, Bishop Zhang told UCA News.

Saint Freinademetz, who was given the Chinese name Fu Rouse, was canonized with Saint Arnold Janssen (1837-1909), the Divine Word Society´s founder, in October 2003.

Father Sun said he learned that the bishop had been found sick beside his motorcycle outside an elderly home late in the afternoon of Aug. 15. He was unable to speak, so the staff of the home asked him to rest in their garden and gave him a glass of water. Later he collapsed, and he died that evening.

The Jining parish priest described his bishop as "a simple, humble and kind shepherd, who had always lived on the road and now died on the road." He added that the bishop "had endured hardships and never enjoyed any comfort in life."

Bishop Zhao stayed in the bishop´s house only a few days each year. "He always rode his three-wheel motorbike, a vehicle especially adapted for the elderly, to visit parishes, Catholic families and the elderly in the countryside on his own, even on stormy days," Father Sun recalled.

"We young priests always tried to persuade the bishop to stop and to convene priests´ meetings to make plans for the diocese´s development. Instead, he preferred his traditional pastoral practices, and would not let us share his work," the priest continued, adding that the diocese has no structure, not even a diocesan office or committee.

Some local Church people described the bishop as "a brilliant priest," but not necessarily fit to lead a diocese.

Yanzhou diocese has six priests, five of them in their 30s, and dozens of nuns serving about 10,000 active Catholics. According to Father Sun, all the priests hope a neighboring bishop will guide the diocese for the time being.

However, Bishop Zhang thinks Yanzhou diocese should eventually elect a new bishop. He said the dioceses in Shandong are quite far apart from one another, making it quite difficult for a bishop to look a neighboring diocese.

The late Bishop Zhao was born into a traditional Catholic family in Jining in 1920 and entered the Yanzhou diocesan minor seminary at age 7. He entered Yanzhou Major Seminary in 1939 and was ordained a priest in 1945. He served as parish priest of Yanzhou cathedral and director of a diocese-run hospital before being sent to a "reform-through-labor" camp in 1958.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), he was assigned to work on a farm. After his release in 1980, he returned to Yanzhou diocese, and entered the Society of the Divine Word in the early 1980s. He subsequently taught theology at Holy Spirit Seminary in Jinan from 1988 to 1993.

Elected administrator of Yanzhou in December 1992, he was ordained bishop on May 18, 1993, filling an episcopal vacancy that went back to Bishop Shi Linge´s death during the Cultural Revolution.

In 1999, Bishop Zhao was seriously injured in a road accident during a pastoral visit. After his recovery, however, he continued his visits.

This year, in mid-May, the diocese celebrated his 60th anniversary of priesthood, and local government officials attended the event.

Yanzhou diocese had been entrusted to the Society of the Divine Word when it became an apostolic vicariate in 1924. When the Catholic hierarchy in China was established in 1946, Yanzhou was elevated to a diocese, headed by Divine Word Bishop Theodore Schu. Foreign missioners were expelled from China after the founding of the People´s Republic of China in 1949, and Bishop Shi was elected and ordained a bishop without papal approval in 1958.


(Accompanying photos available at here)

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