Rome (AsiaNews) Mgr Lucas Li Jingfeng from Fengxiang, Mgr Joseph Wei Jingyi from Qiqihar and Mgr Aloysius Jin Luxian from Shanghai remember with emotion the "great and exceptional" figure of Mgr Anthony Li Duan, archbishop of Xian, who passed away last night at the age of 79. All four of them were invited last year by Benedict XVI to the Synod of the Eucharist.
"Last year we were supposed to be in Rome together," Bishop Lucas Li, whose diocese borders that of Xian, told AsiaNews. "With that invitation we felt the weight of our responsibility vis-à-vis the Church of China and the Holy See," he said.
With the passing of his fellow bishop, Mgr Li, who is now the oldest bishop in Shaanxi province, feels a bit alone "at the helm of the Church".
"He was respected by everyone, always available and committed to bridging the gap between the official and the underground Church gap".
Bishop Li Duan devoted much of his time to listening, bringing together, giving advice to bishops from both the official and underground Church so that they could understand one another and be reconciled with the Pope and amongst themselves.
By contrast, the Patriotic Association (PA) tried for decades to drive a wedge between 'patriotic' and 'illegal' bishops and believers, opposing loyalty to China to fidelity to the Holy See.
For years Bishop Lucas Li, who belongs to the underground Church, had tense relations with the Bishop of Xian. But more recently the two prelates had become "good friends" and the Church in Shaanxi was able to find a basis for reconciliation. Mgr Lucas Li was even able to get the government to recognise him as the bishop despite his refusal to join the PA.
Speaking from China's extreme north, underground Bishop Wei Jingyi told AsiaNews about Li Duan's great work.
"He always tried to bring unity to the official and underground Church like we are doing now. As everyone knows the problems between them and their divisions are the work of outside organisations."
As soon as he learnt of Bishop Li's death, Mgr Wei relayed the information to the faithful of his diocese, asking them to pray for "this great pastor of the Church".
For Shanghai's official bishop, Mgr Jin Luxian, Li Duan was a "great friend and an excellent pastor whose concern was the fate of the whole Church of China,"
For Bishop Jin, Li was "was very intelligent, capable of facing and transforming any contradiction into something good."
For years, Bishop Li Duan was deputy chairman of the Council of Chinese Bishops (akin to a national bishops' conference but without the Holy See's recognition). But he always upheld the principle of separation between state and church in a country like China where the government and the Patriotic Association claim the right to name bishops.
Because "China has many elderly bishops," said the 94-year-old Jin, the appointment of younger bishops last year is an issue of concern to him.
"There is a young bishop in my diocese: 43-year-old Mgr Xing Wenzhi. In Xian, there is the young bishop Dang Mingyan. I pray God to let us be with them a little longer so we can accompany them in their still limited pastoral experience".
Recently the government's Religious Affairs Bureau and the PA summoned newly-appointed bishops to train them in the government religious policy. The goal is to convince them of the correctness of the PA's decision to name bishops despite the Holy See's disapproval.
For this reason, Bishop Jin said, "we call on believers to pray for our Church in China"