Hong Kong (AsiaNews/Ucan) - Afflicted with multiple illnesses since 2001, Bishop Paul Francis Zhang Mingqian of Yichang passed away July 24 at the age of 88. His funeral was held July 26. After the Mass, his body was cremated and his ashes buried at the cathedral. Around 1,000 local Catholics attended the funeral Mass. Five other Masses held already for the late bishop had drawn 200-300 Catholics each.
According to Father Lu Shouwang, vicar general of the diocese in Hubei province (on the right in the photo), the late Franciscan bishop had been hospitalized since May 1 with diabetes, high blood pressure and other conditions. Yichang, in central China Hubei region, is 1,485 kilometers southwest of Beijing.
Father Lu said Bishop Zhang, being a medical doctor, cooperated well with doctors and nurses during his treatment. However, doctors advised the diocese to take him home after 40 days in the hospital. The bishop died at St. Francis Cathedral with priests by his side.
Bishop Zhang donated what he earned from working as a medical doctor as daily expenses for seminarians, whom he taught in person earlier during his episcopate. Even though he concentrated his efforts on Church affairs after he retired from practicing medicine in 1982, he still offered medical advice to priests and Catholics who became ill.
Born on Oct. 26, 1917, to a Catholic family in Jingmen city, Hubei, Vatican-approved Bishop Zhang joined the Franciscan minor seminary in Hankou apostolic vicariate in 1938, at the age of 21. He continued on to the major seminary and was ordained a priest in 1944. After which he returned to Yichang diocese.
In 1947, he started a clinic while serving as a parish priest in Jingmen. Under Communist rule, he was left to preach in Jingmen while working in a hospital there in 1956. Two years later, the local Church elected him the first Chinese bishop of Yichang, and Bishop Bernardine Dong Guangqing of Hankou, also a Franciscan, ordained him bishop the following year. Years later Bishop Zhang asked for reconciliation with the Vatican.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Bishop Zhang was sent for "reform-through-labor" at the First People's Hospital in Yichang. He returned to the Church in 1978, and served as the ordinary of Yichang until his death.
In the eyes of Father Lu, who currently administers the diocese, Bishop Zhang "contributed his whole to the training of priests and nuns, and in the building of churches." The bishop also attempted to regain Church properties after religions were reinstated in the late 1970s.
His efforts to build new churches and recover old ones were not confined to Yichang, but extended to other dioceses in Hubei. He was most successful in Shashi diocese, which used to be part of Yichang diocese, Father Lu noted.
According to the priest, the late bishop also built a convent for nuns in 1987, and trained more than 10 nuns and 30 priests from 1989 to 1995, some of whom are now serving in other dioceses.
Father Lu said the late bishop's contribution to the Church endeared him to many in the diocese. "He had no temper, and we priests felt no pressure being with him," the vicar general remarked.
Hong Kong-based Franciscan Father Joseph Ha Chi-shing echoed Father Lu's sentiments, saying that Bishop Zhang had taken good care of his priests, which fostered unity among them.
Father Ha, who knew Bishop Zhang since 1998, remembered the bishop's humor and his easygoing, informal character, which he called "rare among elderly bishops."
According to unofficial statistics, in 1949 there were 15,551 faithful. At presente there are 25,200 catholics.