Obituary: Bishop Philip Yang Libo

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PHILIP YANG LIBO spent more than 30 years of his nearly half a century of priestly life in prison. As a Chinese Catholic loyal to the Vatican he was a member of perhaps the largest illegal religious group in the world, numbering between five and ten million faithful.

Yang was born into a Catholic family in a poor mountain village in Gulang county in Gansu province, north-western China. He entered the junior seminary in Wuwei and, on reaching adulthood, the major seminary in Lanzhou, Gansu's capital. As he approached the priesthood, to which he was ordained in 1949, China was undergoing the turbulence of civil war and the Communist takeover.

Through the 1950s, restrictions on the Catholic Church grew tighter. The government insisted that the Church renounce ties with the Vatican and set up the Catholic Patriotic Association as its instrument to enforce control. Most of the bishops and much of the clergy refused to accept the CPA and many were imprisoned. Yang was arrested as early as 1952 and spent repeated periods in prison and labour camps throughout the rest of his life.

He was released in 1979 as the authorities were easing up on religion. In 1981 he was secretly consecrated Bishop of Lanzhou, an appointment never recognised by the Chinese government. He devoted himself to preparing priests and nuns for the religious life, but was again arrested in 1983.

Released in 1987, Yang played a part in the formation of a clandestine Catholic Bishops' Conference. Those bishops still at liberty met in November 1989 and Yang became one of the CBC's vice-presidents. Within weeks, all the bishops who had attended were arrested, Yang on Christmas Day. In mid-1990, after being held for several months for "shelter and investigation" he was assigned without charge or trial to three years' re-education through labour in a detention centre in Lanzhou. He was released on parole at the end of 1992.

He resumed his work on religious formation and, over the rest of his life, ordained 18 priests, while more than 100 nuns took their vows before him. He also devoted himself to alleviating the harshness of life for the local people in this desert-like region of north-western China, raising more than pounds 7,000 to dig a well in a village near Wuwei.

Yang was dedicated to his ministry. He also had a vision for the future of his Church. In an article he wrote from prison in 1987 he noted that the Catholic Church continued to be persecuted even after the official restoration of religion in China in 1982. He called for injustices done to lay people, seminarians, nuns and clergy of his diocese to be redressed. He listed the urgent tasks of the diocese as restoring churches, bringing forward a younger generation of church leaders and caring for elderly nuns and the ordinary clergy.

Felix Corley

Philip Yang Libo, priest: born Gulang county, China 1918; ordained priest 1949; Bishop of Lanzhou 1981-98; died Wuwei, China 15 February 1998.