06/11/2019, 19.58
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Mgr Li Side’s funeral treated as a ‘state affair', monitored by police and security forces

by Peter Zhao

The underground bishop, who died on 8 June, was not given a solemn funeral or acknowledged in accordance with his status as a bishop. Official priests and nuns were not allowed to attend the services. Chinese authorities are afraid of bishops even when they are dead.

Tianjin (AsiaNews) – The funeral of Mgr Stephen Li Side, Ordinary Bishop of Tianjin, was held last Saturday amid close monitoring of the funeral parlour, the cemetery, visitation room, prayer services, and churches. Security forces worked overtime in an attempt to stifle any show of respect the late prelate enjoyed in his community. His funeral was done without a Mass. He was denied his titles as bishop. Underground Catholics and nuns were not allowed to attend any of the services. All this was done to clearly show that the bishop was not recognised by the government and so did not have any right to a solemn funeral. A member of the diocese wrote to AsiaNews about it, showing that: a) the Church in China is indeed shackled, and b) the authorities are afraid of bishops even when they are dead. The latter (uselessly) monitored the event like a state affair, when in fact it was only the last farewell by a community to its pastor.

Over the past few days, many people have been interested in the story of Bishop Li Side, from my Diocese of Tianjin. Let me give you some information about him, from the start of his illness up to now. The information I have for you comes from the priests I spoke to.

In mid-May, Mgr Li Side was hospitalised after he suffered a cerebral thrombosis. He later had difficulty breathing. At around 10 am last Saturday, he was on the brink of death, and passed away at 11.24 am. A week before, the United Front, the security forces and the police took over the parish where Bishop Melchior Shi Hongzhen[1] lives, preventing anyone from going in or out. Only after Bishop Li’s ashes were buried, around 11am yesterday, did government officials slowly leave.

During his stay in hospital, priests talked about organising his funeral, what to do, but did not have time to discuss Bishop Li’s return to the Father with the local Religious Affairs Bureau.

When we heard about it last Saturday, we immediately went to Ji Zhou, where Bishop Li lived, but we were told that, for security reasons, the funeral hall at Liang Zhuang parish church, where Mgr served for years, could not be used.

The authorities took Li’s body to a funeral parlour in Ji Zhou, where he was placed in a glass casket. When they heard about it, the priests, except those monitored (i.e. underground priests), went to the funeral parlour. Officials from the United Front, the Office for Internal Security and the police also arrived. On behalf of the group, some of the priests tried to discuss with officials how to proceed with Mgr Li’s funeral. They asked how many days the body could remain at the parlour, who would celebrate the funeral, whether the body would be buried or cremated, where it would be buried, etc. All they were told was "We must ask our superiors" or "We must wait for directives from the top".

Officials from the local United Front told us that they would do what the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Committee for Catholic Educational Administration in Tianjin told them. Parishioners and priests were thus shunted aside, and whenever we made some proposals, they’d always say: "Heed the Lianghui (the two organisations]".

After Mgr Li’s body was brought to the funeral parlour, his relatives and ordinary Catholics came from all over the diocese to express their condolences. Initially, no one could get close. Eventually, perhaps due to the increasing number of people, the body was placed in a (refrigerated) high voltage (380V) electric casket, and the staff closed the facility for safety reasons.

The funeral parlour was supposed to close at 4 pm, but stayed open for another hour, probably on someone’s orders. At 5 am, a funeral parlour manager told us that it was closing time and kindly asked us to leave.

Around 5.30 pm we were all in the courtyard and some priests came for a funeral prayer. We spoke with government officials in order to hold a funeral prayer for Mgr Li. They let us do it and afterwards we left. During this half-day, no official priest came, except a few who serve the official Church in the Diocese of Ji Zhou,

That night, the "Lianghui" in Tianjin posted online the funeral and burial schedule, but they never discussed the funeral arrangements with us. They claim that they were respecting Mgr Li’s 2017 will, in which the bishop asks that the service be as simple as possible. The will is legal, and includes a video. We asked to read the written will, but only one relative saw the video. Although the authorities claim that it Li was responsible for the will, we believe he was forced into it. Since many parishes had to celebrate Mass on the vigil of Pentecost, or had to celebrate memorial Masses for Bishop Li, we only saw the schedule at 10 pm.

The next day, Pentecost, many parishioners came to the funeral parlour after the solemn Mass to mourn. All those present had to register before entering, giving the name of their own diocese, parish, name, mobile phone number, etc., for security reasons. People were allowed in only in small groups, also for security reasons. Since the time for Mass varies according to parish, the priests trickled in all afternoon.

As they tried to talk with the authorities again, the official in charge kept refusing to meet with them. Since most priests also had to celebrate the evening Mass, they had to leave early. Some officials showed up and the priests made some requests, like no cremation, burial in church or in the village of Liang Zhuang Zi, have Bishop Shi celebrate the funeral service, or at least pastor Liang Zhuang, but they were all turned down. The reasons were always the same: burying the body was illegal, Li and Shi are not recognised bishops, etc. In the end we asked if, before the funeral, we could come with the faithful to celebrate Mass and bid farewell, even at night. This time the authorities did not say no right away; they talked it over among themselves and asked their superiors. They told us that only the priests, not the faithful could come after midnight.

Our representatives asked again if we could bring some sisters, since Mgr Li founded the Congregation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of the Mother of Jesus and the nuns were like his daughters. Unfortunately, this request too was turned down. Only after lengthy negotiations did they let two sisters participate on behalf of all of them. When the priests realised that there was no longer room for talks, the last ones left to celebrate the Mass.

After the Mass many returned to the funeral parlour, and not all for personal reasons. To prevent people from taking pictures or video taping, the authorities asked people to hand over their mobile phones. At midnight and 5 minutes, the priests celebrated Mass and funeral prayers.

Bishop Shi did not come. Mass was celebrated by Fr Yang. No one could hide their sorrow. During the reading of the thanksgiving prayer, it was almost impossible to go on, especially when the word "our bishop" was read. The service was very solemn, serene and orderly. After the Mass the priests returned to their parish.

On the third day at 5 am, police cars were parked on the streets of the villages of the various parishes, as officials from the local Religious Affairs Bureau monitored movements, not allowing people to leave. Almost no one was able to attend the bishop's funeral.

Videos posted online show almost all the priests, about 40, from the official community present in the funeral parlour’s visitation room. Others present say the same thing. The Missionaries of Charity from the official community were also present, but only a few ordinary Catholics were allowed, namely those picked by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

Most people were in the courtyard, with security forces outnumbering the faithful. In the visitation room, Fr Zhu Lige led the Mass and funeral prayers, and all the official priests concelebrated. When Mass was celebrated in the visitation room in St Joseph's Cathedral in Tianjin (Xikai), people outside read the rosary. They same happened here: the faithful in the courtyard recited the rosary. At one point, someone came out to tell them to stop and follow the Mass instead, but no one paid any attention and continued to recite the rosary.

The service lasted more than an hour, as did the rosary. The courtyard and the visitation room were divided by a barrier. The authorities said that no one could come close the body to bid farewell. However, some particularly moved believers climbed the barrier during Mass, to enter the visitation hall, but were immediately stopped and detained. At the end, when the priests of the official community were leaving, some faithful insulted them calling them traitors.

The cemetery in which Bishop Li was buried is the best near Ji Zhou. The Yuanbao Shanzhuang Memorial Park, bought by the government, is well positioned (according to fengshui).

The government and the Lianghui handed out passes to official priests and some faithful for security reasons. The cars with the appropriate pass could go inside the cemetery. The number of passes was limited compared to the number of people present. Many people stood at the cemetery’s entrance unable to enter because they lacked the pass. Some tired of waiting got into an argument with government officials. Eventually, someone managed to get those in charge to let them in.

Since the place where the bishop's tomb is located is not very big, people were allowed in only in small groups, like at the funeral parlour. The priests and nuns of the official community were the first to go in to perform the burial service. The faithful, who went in only after the priests and nuns of the official community left, were very sad. When they saw them chatting and laughing on their way out, they became very angry. The funeral ended around 11 am. After this, guards left the various parishes.

Members of the official Church said that many official priests seemed to have no ties to Bishop Li. When he was in hospital only a few went to visit him. Few came to the funeral parlour, except on the last day. Some priests told their parishioners that "It is useless for us to go, because the top authorities have not sent us." They never considered Mgr Li as their father.

In the last years of his life, some official priests went to visit him, but often only when they needed his signature, and sometimes they did not even go there in person, but sent someone with a letter or nomination certificate to be signed. After some formal greetings, they went away immediately.

I must add that in the last few days of his life, at the hospital, Mgr Shi Hongzhen came to see him (picture 3).

[1] Bishop Melchior Shi Hongzhen is the (underground) coadjutor bishop of Mgr Li Side. He is 92 years old and he too lived under house arrest for many years.

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