Underground bishop, a “humble but extraordinary pastor”, dies at 103
Mgr Meng, underground bishop of Nanning, was the country’s oldest prelate. For Fr Giancarlo Politi, missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and a China expert, the prelate led a life till the end with “out of the ordinary vitality” despite spending 25 years in a laogai camp. Bishop appointments are increasingly becoming a problem with little “chance of solving the issue in the near future.”

Rome (AsiaNews) – He was a “humble but extraordinary pastor who was dedicated to his community and had out of the ordinary energy and vitality,” said Fr Giancarlo Politi, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and a China expert, as he remembered Mgr Joseph Meng Ziwen, bishop of Nanning (Guangxi), who passed away last Sunday at the age of 103 as a result of a liver tumour. He was the oldest prelate in the whole of China.

Father Politi told AsiaNews that the bishop “was someone who up to three years ago still said mass every Sunday in three different parishes without sparing himself.” His coadjutor, Mgr John Baptist Tan Yanchuan, will celebrate the funeral tomorrow.

Born into a non-Catholic family on March 19, 1903, in Hengling, Bishop Meng was baptised as a youth. When he was 18 years old he spent eight years at a minor seminary. After studying six years of theology and philosophy at the major seminary in Penang, Malaysia, he was ordained into the priesthood in Nanning in 1935.

After the Communist revolution he was accused of collaborating with the Kuomintang and sent to a laogai (reform through labour) camp in the early fifties and released in 1957.

Upon his release that year, he resumed work at a church in Nanning, where, thanks to his medical training, he set up and ran a clinic, but was re-arrested the following year charged with helping the enemies of the Revolution. He was eventually released in 1970.

In the 1980s, Bishop Meng was able to reclaim some Church property and rebuild churches. He recruited young Catholics as nuns and seminarians to help in evangelisation work. “Bringing Christ to the world” remained his lifelong goal.

He was ordained bishop by the Holy See in 1984, but the Communist regime refused to accept his appointment. To avoid problems for his community he always signed diocesan papers as a simple priest. For his parishioners, he was affectionately known as lao shenfu, the old priest.

Father Politi remembers that the prelate “always led humble life. Although he could not call himself bishop he was always relatively free to move around Guangxi to visit small Christian communities and lived quietly. Here, there never were any of the open clashes with the Church as elsewhere in China”. The recent arrests on December 27 of nine priests in Baoding, in the central province if Hebei, are an example of this open conflict.

Bishop Meng’s death follows the passing of four official bishops, all in the last month. Whether official or not, prelates are getting older and the tense situation between the Patriotic Association (which seeks to control appointments) and the Vatican have made new nominations a thorny issue for the whole Church in China.

Father Politi is quite pessimistic about the future. “I can’t see any chance of solving the issue in the near future. The Communist Party only wants to maintain its power and thus must maintain the status quo”.

Yet, even though Sino-Vatican relations are difficult, “the life of the Church in the country is growing despite everything,” he said.