The first, an underground bishop not recognised by the government, was cremated and hurriedly buried. The faithful and priests were forbidden to attend the funeral Mass, and taking pictures at the service was banned. The second, a bishop with the official Church and a political advisor to the Chinese parliament, was exposed for several days honoured and his funeral was open to concelebrants and the faithful.
Rome (AsiaNews) – Rituals for the dead are a very important part of traditional Chinese culture, whose oldest religious aspect can be found in ancestor worship. However, China’s traditional culture has been overwhelmed more recently by communist ideology and a paranoia of power.
This is best exemplified in the different orders issued by the authorities and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) for the funeral of Mgr Paul Xie Tingzhe, bishop of Urumqi (Xinjiang), and that of Mgr Sylvester Li Jiantang, bishop of Taiyuan (Shanxi).
The two died 13 hours apart: the first at 8.30 am on Monday, the second at 6 pm on Sunday. Their stories are very similar. Both spent decades in forced labour camps, but the former never accepted to join the CPCA, whilst the latter did, in good faith, even though he tried to be always faithful to the precepts of evangelisation.
This difference has resulted in distinct funeral services. Mgr Xie was buried in a hurry without honours; Mgr Li was honoured in accordance with his rank.
First of all, the two bodies were treated differently. Mgr Xie’s remains were exposed to the devotion of the faithful for only 24 hours. Those of Mgr Li were exposed for days with a memorial Mass held today, and a funeral on Saturday in his native village of Gong'ergou.
Funeral services were also different. Two hours after Mgr Xie’s death, the Funeral Committee, prompted by local authorities, issued a statement in which it laid out exact instructions for the funeral. The bishop's body was not to be exposed after 15 August, it had to be cremated the following morning, the funeral Mass could not be longer than half an hour as was the burial ceremony in Urumqui’s Dongshan cemetery.
The Funeral Committee also ordered that only one priest, Fr Wang Hong, celebrate the funeral, and that Fr Li Zheng lead the burial ceremony. Two other priests – Fr Zhang Xuemin and Fr Song Zunshen - could be present at Mass, but they were not allowed to concelebrate.
The diocese’s 26 priests, all spiritual sons of the bishop who set up the Urumqi Church from nothing, were not allowed in the cathedral. All but three had to remain in their respective parish under police watch. What is more, not only taking pictures or making videos during the service was banned, but the faithful were not allowed to take part in the Mass.
Yet during the two days of mourning, thousands of people, the bishop’s friends and ordinary Catholics, came to Urumqi. Unable to enter the cathedral, they filled Dongshan cemetery to show their respect to the deceased (pictures 1 and 2).
During the burial ceremony, plainclothes policemen kept a watch over the faithful to see if they obeyed orders. “The authorities did everything to demean the bishop as a person and devalue his influence in society,” a source from Urumqi told AsiaNews.
In contrast to Mgr Xie’s minimalist funeral, the bishop of Taiyuan was led on his last journey in a very solemn way. According to some reports, at least five to six thousand people came every day to honour the body in the cathedral. Rites and prayers were held every day. People were allowed to take pictures (pictures 3 and 4).
A Mass was held today in the cathedral, concelebrated by a number of priests whilst the funeral before the burial in his native village will take place on Saturday.
Bishop Li Jiantang is described as the "secretary of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association in Shanxi Province," and as "a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference", a body that advises the National People's Congress, China’s parliament. This blend of religion and politics earned him solemn honours.