Rome (AsiaNews) - Today, at 7:50 p.m., Beijing time (1:50 p.m. Rome time), Monsignor Michael Fu Tieshan, Patriotic Archbishop of China's capital, died in Beijing Hospital, the medical centre for China's political élite, where he had been admitted a few days ago in serious condition. Before his death, he received the visit of President Hu Jintao.
Archbishop Fu had been sick with lung cancer for years. According to some members of the faithful, it is thanks to his political stature that he was able to live so long, as the most costly and modern treatments were profusely bestowed upon him. Some say the government had established a group of young soldiers of the People's Liberation Army to act as "reservoir" of blood for the transfusions that he needed.
A few days ago he received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and the priests and nuns of Beijing began lining up to pay their respects. According to some priests in the capital, at the moment of the anointing, unable to speak, Fu Tieshan shed a few tears.
Fu Tieshan has been described at the "most tragic" figure of the Chinese Church: disliked and shunned by the faithful of his diocese for having continuously taken sides against the Pope, the Vatican and the people of China (he had even praised the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 on state television); rewarded, praised, promoted up the government's and the Patriotic Association's bureaucratic ladder, becoming Vice-President of the People's National Assembly and President of the Patriotic Association. The faithful of his diocese had always criticized him for his weakness which brough him to total subjection to the Party and to the workings of a woman, Ms Chen Maoju, his would-be secretary who, taking advantage of the bishop's illness, squandered and pocketed for herself much of the Beijing Church's estate.
Michael Fu Tieshan was born in December of 1931, in the Qing Yuan district (Hebei). He entered the Xishiku minor seminary of Beijing (Church of the Holy Saviour, Beitang). He studied philosophy and theology in the major seminary of the Archdiocese of Beijing, in the Wen Sheng College (where the tomb of the great missionary Fr Matteo Ricci is located; this building that was later taken over by the government for a Party School).
With Maoism and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), almost every bishop and priest was thrown into prison and into forced labour, especially those who refused to enter the Patriotic Association and then -- during the Cultural Revolution -- the Patriotics as well. There was never any news of Fu Tieshan having suffered violence and convictions.
His official biography says that in the long period under Mao Zedong, from July 1956 to July 1979, with ups and downs, Fu carried out the functions of priest in the Beitang (Holy Saviour) Parish and at the Nantang (Immaculate Conception). From 1963 to 1966, he studied for a degree at the Red Flag University (Hong Qi), while holding a job to earn a living.
With the arrival of Deng Xiaoping and the liberation of many priests and bishops, the Church hoped to be finally free of the chains of the Patriotic Association. Instead, it was with the episcopal ordination of Fu Tieshan that the Association reappeared on the scene, together with the idea of a Church independent from Rome. Fu's episcopal ordination took place on December 21, 1979, at the hands of Monsignor Yang Gaojian, Bishop of Changde (Hunan), a famous anti-papist. The other two concelebrants were Monsignor Zhang Jiashu, Bishop of Shanghai, and Monsignor Wang Xueming, Bishop of Hohot (Inner Mongolia).
From 1979 onward, Fu Tieshan's career was a long crescendo of important appointments, both in the Church and in political life. In 1979 he became member of the Executive Commission of the People's National Assembly; in 2003 he became vice-president of the Assembly, Beijing's parliament-light. As for the Church, he became vice-president and general secretary of the Council of Chinese Bishops (a sort of episcopal conference, not recognized by the Holy See); in January 1998, he became president of the Patriotic Association, the statutes of which foresee the establishment of an independent Church.
"Independence" and submission
The rise of his career -- in a tangle of religion and politics, of religion commanded by politics -- corresponded with a humiliating and servile descent towards the regime's aims. In 1989, a few days after the Tiananmen massacre, he was the only religious figure to defend on state television Deng's choice to use tanks to clear students out of the square.
In 1999, in obedience to Jiang Zemin, he associated himself with the international compaign against the Falun Gong movement, condemning the followers of this "evil cult" who, in the meanwhile, were being arrested, tortured and killed.
In 2000, in New York, while participating in the Millennium Summit with world religious leaders, he harshly condemned the Dalai Lama and accused the countries that, "on the pretext of human rights," interfere with the "sovereignty" of other nations.
In obedience to the Patriotic Association, on October 1st, 2000, he condemned the Vatican for "having dared" to canonize 120 Chinese and foreign martyrs, "instruments of colonialism," defining as "intolerable" the ceremony presided in Saint Peter's by John Paul II.
Already in 1999, the government was secretly beginning to speak of possible diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The Patriotic Association had instead wanted the campaign against the canonizations in order to create difficulties for Beijing and the Holy See. For the same reason, on January 6, 2000, while the Pope was ordaining 12 bishops in Saint Peter's, an illicit ordination of bishops was arranged in Beijing. There were to have been 12 candidates (as in Rome). Instead, 7 of them refused the ordination, having learned that the Holy See had not given its permission. Others were duped, isolated and kept in the dark about the illicit status of the ordinations. Neither the faithful nor seminarians took part in the ceremony held at the Nantang Cathedral.
As the faithful increasingly abandoned the functions at which he appeared, Fu became more and more the symbol of the "autonomous Church," enslaved to the ideological and economic interests of the Patriotic Association.
In 2001, John Paul II sent a touching message to the Chinese people and authorities on the 400th anniversary of Matteo Ricci's arrival in Beijing. The document was written from the heart and asked "not for privileges", but for "freedom" for the Church to contribute "to the good of the great Chinese people." The Pope went as far as to ask foregiveness for any misunderstandings or negative signals of the past. Fu Tieshan, together with the Patriotic Association, wrote the letter off as "insufficient."
In 2003, despite being himself so enslaved to and mixed up with politics, he openly criticized the bishop of Hong Kong, Monsignor Joseph Zen who, in upholding the call for democracy in the territory, was not distinguishing between "what must be given to Caesar and what is God's."
The Church of Beijing united with the Pope
Also in 2003, under his presidency, new rules were implemented and the Patriotic Association, with the excuse of applying the "democratic" principle in Church decisions, deprived bishops of their authority and risked undermining the dogmatic and sacramental value of the Chinese Church.
In recent years, his illness brought him to gradually take leave of public life, leaving the Church of Beijing in the hands of the Patriotic Association and its vice-president, layman Liu Bainian. The point is that, while the Patriotic Association continues its policy of "independence" from the Holy See with documents and the illicit ordination of bishops, a tenacious faithfulness to the Pope has grown among the priests and faithful of Beijing. The vitality of the Beijing community is shown also by the considerable number of adults who are baptized each year. These include cultural figures, students, businessmen. Meanwhile, the desire is growing in the government too for diplomatic relations with the Vatican, as is the esteem for the social work of religions and the desire to set aside an organism as cumbersome and problematic as the Patriotic Association.
Perhaps Fu's death will open a new chapter in the choice of a new pastor in Beijing who is more attentive to a harmonious society and more faithful to the Catholic Church.