Xian (AsiaNews) He died with the ring on his finger Benedict XVI gave him after the Synod on the Eucharist. To anyone who visited him in hospital, Mgr Li Duan would show it with pride. "This is the ring of my communion with Pope," he used to say.
The archbishop of Xian, who passed away last night, had been invited to the Synod with other three bishops, both official and underground, but the Chinese government refused them the necessary papers to travel.
The Pope gave all four bishops a ring to symbolise that, despite their absence, they were still considered members of the Synod.
Fr Peter Barry, an expert at Hong Kong's Holy Spirit Study Centre, spoke to AsiaNews about Archbishop Li.
"I visited the bishop last January in hospital. He showed me the ring the Pope gave him. It seemed to be his most precious thing."
However minor this episode may be it shows the type of man Mgr Anthony Li Duan was and the depth of his love for the universal Church and its pontiff.
According to Father Barry, Archbishop Li "is perhaps one of the most exceptional personalities in today's Chinese Church. He was a member of the official Church, but entertained relations with the underground Church. He was well respected by both branches of the Chinese Church."
"He was very courageous. In January 2000 he refused to take part in ordinations deemed unlawful by the Holy See, thus showing obedience to papal injunctions."
"He was a man of great spirituality and this enabled to face any problem with serenity like the case involving nuns in Xian, who were beaten because they opposed the confiscation of their school by the authorities. He chose to buy back the school and the land, which are near the Cathedral, to avoid any further problems for the Church."
"Some young bishops, who are today following in his footsteps, grew up around him," he said.
Fr Gianni Criveller, from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), who also works at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, remembers him for his Catholic clarity.
"His line was clear: The Catholic Church is the one united around its bishops in communion with the Pope. For this reason he was critical of the Patriotic Association's attempts to name bishops on its own. For the same reasons he refused to take part in the unlawful ordinations of 2000, which caused him to endure long interrogations, experience oppression, and be subjected to checks by government officials. For years his seminary was penalised."
Father Criveller remembers that despite all the difficulties "Mgr Li was always unruffled and optimistic, above of all about the future of the Church. He used to say: This is the right time for the evangelisation of China."
In fact, in Xian as well as in the rest of China the number of conversions and baptisms is growing at a phenomenal rate amongst intellectuals, university students, and professionals.
"When people pointed out that Protestants were growing more quickly than Catholics, he said without any regrets that it was a good sign."
"'It is a beautiful thing,' he used to say, 'that so many people get to know Jesus. And when some of them get to see the greater richness of the Catholic faith, they become Catholic.'"
Archbishop Li was twice in forced labour camps; first, from 1960 to 1963, and then from 1963 till 1979. And yet he was a diehard optimist, one that felt no resentment, even when it came to the future of state-Church relations.
"In the last 10 to 15 years, Li Duan became the Vatican's most trusted man in China," said Father Criveller. "The Holy See trusted him with the task of bridging the gap amongst underground communities. And in the last few years, he did succeed in gaining the trust of many underground bishops."
When John Paul II named a cardinal in pectore (in secret) during the 2003 consistory, many observers believed that he was the one the Pope had in mind.
Anthony Dang Mingyan, auxiliary bishop of Xian, told AsiaNews that when Archbishop Li died, in addition to himself, several priests and tens of faithful from Xian had gathered around the ailing prelate.
He was still conscious almost up to the end passing away with sound of their voices in prayer. Yesterday morning AsiaNews heard from him for the last time. At 2 am he had an attack.
The funeral is scheduled for May 31 in Gongyi parish (Lintong), where Mgr Li served as parish priest from 1980 till 1987 right after he was freed from forced labour camp. He will be laid to rest in the church itself.
His body will lie in state in Xian Cathedral for three days. Masses and vigil prayers will be held under Archbishop Li's successor, Auxiliary Bishop Dang Mingyan.