Signalling their loyalty to the Pope and the wider Catholic Church is delicate for China's Catholic bishops, who are forced by their government to renounce such ties and to accept government restrictions on their Church. Archbishop Anthony Li Duan's way of doing so was to wear the ring he had been sent by Pope Benedict XVI last year after he and three colleagues from the Catholic Patriotic Association were refused permission by the Chinese government to attend a synod at the Vatican. "This is the ring of my communion with the Pope," he would tell visitors proudly.
All China's Catholic bishops are appointed ostensibly by the Catholic Patriotic Association acting for the local Church, but in reality by the Communist Party. Li - a veteran of 18 years' imprisonment for his faith - accepted consecration as bishop of his native diocese of Xian in April 1987. His relations with local secret bishops who remained loyal to the Vatican (and are often heavily persecuted) were initially tense, yet Li soon developed a rapport with them and gained reconciliation with the Vatican, which approved his appointment.
Although deputy chairman of the Patriotic Church's bishops conference, a body not recognised by the Vatican, Li defiantly rejected what he regarded as unacceptable government restrictions. He refused to take part in the government-controlled consecration of five new bishops in January 2000 against the wishes of the Vatican and ensured that when his eventual successor was consecrated last July he had the approval both of the government and the Vatican. Li also refused to go along with the political campaign against the canonisation of 120 Chinese martyrs in October 2000, and this saw him subjected to renewed interrogations and government pressure.
While he was in hospital last year being treated for liver cancer, Li strongly backed unprecedented street protests over the beating of several nuns - allegedly by thugs sent by the Xian government - as they tried to stop the seizure of a church-owned school the city had sold to a property developer. The authorities backed down.
Born in the village of Qiu near Xian in the central Shaanxi province, Li grew up in a staunchly Catholic family. He entered a minor seminary in the Xian diocese in 1938, graduating in 1950, the year after Mao seized power in China. Li's ordination in April 1951 came as persecution of religious communities of all faiths began in earnest.
His first post at the diocesan cathedral came at a time of turmoil, as foreign Catholic clergy were expelled, the government banned all contact with the Vatican and set up its own puppet leadership, soon to be known as the Catholic Patriotic Association. Li was among the many clergy and laypeople to be arrested.
He was imprisoned from 1954 to 1957, rearrested in 1958 after a few months' teaching at the seminary and held until 1960. Li was arrested again in 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution, which saw public religious practice all but wiped out by fanatical Red Guards. St Francis Cathedral in Xian was turned into a sweet factory.
As the Cultural Revolution wound down, many religious leaders of a variety of faiths were gradually freed. Li was rehabilitated and released in 1979 and allowed to serve as a parish priest in Lintong, a suburb of Xian.
Li worked hard to re-establish the Church after the savagery of the Cultural Revolution. He rebuilt churches and established social centres in his diocese to meet growing needs in a society divided into the newly rich and the grindingly poor, but religious education remained his priority. Li established the first courses for nuns at Xian seminary in 1997. Even as bishop, he continued to teach canon law and the documents of the Second Vatican Council at the Shaanxi Major Seminary.
Under surveillance by the authorities, Li was also respected by them. Provincial and city leaders visited him in hospital in his final illness. Rumours constantly swirled that he was the secret cardinal named by Pope John Paul II in 2003, but Li always batted away such speculation, saying he had "never received any official confirmation".
Felix CorleyReuse content