Comatose Elderly Bishop Of Hengshui Dies

2008-01-18 00:00:00

Bishop Mathias Chen Xilu of Hengshui (Jingxian), whose episcopacy the Vatican approved and the Chinese government recognized, died around noon on Jan. 16 after being in a coma for six years.

Bishop Chen, 80, died of organ failure at the bishop´s house next to the cathedral in Jing county, Hebei province, 250 kilometers south of Beijing.

Coadjutor Bishop Peter Feng Xinmao, 45, immediately succeeded Bishop Chen.

The late prelate had been comatose since 2002, following a brain hemorrhage, and his niece and a laywoman had been caring for him in his hometown in Ji county, about 90 kilometers away.

They rushed him to a hospital when he developed a high fever about a week before he died, Bishop Feng told UCA News on Jan. 17. He said that on Jan. 12, when doctors said his condition would not improve, the critically ill prelate was moved to the bishop´s house, where clergy and nuns took turns caring and praying for him.

A Church worker surnamed Wang recalled that when Bishop Chen´s mouth was full of blisters and he was unable to drink water, Bishop Feng wiped and moistened his lips with holy water from Lourdes.

Soon after the elderly bishop died, Bishop Feng and the vicar general cleaned his body and dressed him in his bishop´s garb. His body was then placed in the cathedral for Catholics to pay their respects for seven days.

During this period, all priests gather at the cathedral each morning to concelebrate a requiem Mass for the late bishop. Laypeople attend evening requiem Masses after work.

Bishop Feng said his predecessor´s funeral Mass is scheduled for Jan. 22 morning, followed by a funeral procession to the Church cemetery, six kilometers from the cathedral, for burial.

According to the diocesan obituary, Bishop Chen was born into a Catholic family in 1928 and entered the minor seminary when he was 15. From 1950, he studied in a major seminary in Shanghai. As a priest, following his ordination in 1955, Father Chen, a certified doctor, worked in a clinic in Jing county while doing pastoral work in neighboring areas.

Three years later he was jailed for his religious beliefs. Officials then sent him home for reform-through-labor from 1969 until 1979.

"The bishop was indomitable and willing to endure all hardships, and was a living witness of God," the obituary said.

Following his release in 1979, he returned to Hengshui diocese, where he worked in several parishes and visited Catholics door-to-door. In 1990, he set up an ophthalmic clinic in Ji county where he treated 30-40 patients a day.

His predecessor, Bishop Petrus Fan Wenxing, ordained him coadjutor bishop in 1996. As Church affairs left him no time to see patients, the parishioners ran the clinic they named after him.

Bishop Feng said the clinic closed in 2000 and became a pastoral center. The diocese now holds retreats and formation classes in the center, which can accommodate 100 people.

In 1999, then 71 years old, Bishop Chen succeeded retired Bishop Fan, who died in 2006. Bishop Chen established the minor seminary. Some blame his brain hemorrhage and coma on overwork in managing the diocese.

Bishop Feng, who has a master´s degree in canon law from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, was ordained coadjutor bishop in 2004.

Hengshui has about 20,000 mainly rural Catholics. It is a vocations-rich diocese that currently has 33 priests, 70 nuns, 46 major seminarians and 86 minor seminarians.

Jing county is 45 kilometers east of Hengshui.


(Accompanying photos available at here)

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