12/20/2022, 18.20
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‘Underground’ Bishop Gao of Kaifeng dies

According to local sources, the prelate died in Shaanxi, aged 77.  Secretly ordained in 2005 as coadjutor of Mgr Liang Xisheng, who passed away two years later, Bishop Gao was never recognised by Chinese authorities. The "official" see of the Archdiocese of Kaifeng (Henan) has been vacant since the death of its illegitimate bishop in 2001. Home to PIME missionaries until they were driven out by communist persecution, its history goes back a long way.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Mgr Joseph Gao Hongxiao, a member of the Order of Friars Minor and "underground" bishop of the Archdiocese of Kaifeng (Henan Province), passed away last night at his home in Meixian, his native district in Shaanxi province, this according to Catholic sources in mainland China.

Fr Gao Hongxiao was ordained coadjutor bishop on 1 January 2005 by his predecessor, Mgr John Baptist Liang Xisheng, with a mandate from the Holy See. When the latter passed away at the age of 84 on 27 September 2007, Bishop Gao became the legitimate successor under Canon Law; however, since he was not recognised by Chinese authorities, it was hard for him to carry out his ministry.

Catholics remain split between the "official" and the "underground" communities in Kaifeng, a very important see in the history of Henan Catholicism.

Since 2007, when he took over, Bishop Gao became its only bishop since the Church bodies controlled by the Communist Party of China had left the see vacant after the death in 2001 of Mgr Stanislaus Han Daoyi, a priest appointed by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and ordained bishop in 1993, without papal authorisation.

This difficult situation reflects the experience of suffering by the Catholic community in Kaifeng, home to communities of “cross worshippers”, as they were called, probably established by Nestorian missionaries in the first millennium, whose existence became known to the outside world after the arrival of Matteo Ricci.

Jesuits and Lazarists travelled to Kaifeng in the 17th century to conduct their ministry, until Propaganda Fide gave the task to the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME) in the second half of the 19th century.

The first two bishops, Mgr Noah Giuseppe Tacconi and Mgr Gaetano Pollio, were members of PIME; the latter was imprisoned in 1951 after Mao Zedong took over China and eventually expelled.

Kaifeng’s first "official" bishop was Mgr Stephen He Chunming, illegitimately ordained in 1962, who served as Mgr Pollio’s vicar before he was forced to join Party bodies.

“I met Mgr Gao in Kaifeng; he was a very welcoming person,” said Franco Mella, a Hong Kong-based PIME missionary who spent some time in Kaifeng in the past few years, speaking to AsiaNews.

“He came from another province,” he added. “Young priests in the diocese brought me to him. He told me that he had tried several times to get in touch with the leaders of the official Church, but the situation had not been resolved. He was very sick lately."

Catholics in Kaifeng are estimated to be around 30,000. In addition to Kaifeng, in Henan, the dioceses of Zhengzhou, Shangqiu, Luoyang, Zhumadian, and Xinxiang are also vacant.

One of the main issues not resolved by the Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China is in fact vacant episcopal sees. Although the agreement was renewed last October, more than one diocese in three is still without a bishop. The last episcopal ordination dates back to 8 September 2021 in Wuhan.

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