Obituaries: Archbishop Dominic Tang Yee-ming

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The Independent Online
Dominic Tang Yee-ming could have been a pivotal figure in restoring ties between the Vatican and the Catholic Church in China, had the flexibility displayed by the Vatican been matched by the Peking authorities.

On being released in 1980, after more than two decades in prison, and returned to his diocese of Guangzhou, Tang was ideally placed to try to heal the bitter division in the Church caused by the dominance of the government-sponsored Catholic Patriotic Association and the forced separation of the Church from the Vatican. Hopes were aborted the following year and the division in the Church between the "Patriotic" and "underground" wings - despite the reconciliation of many of the "patriotic" bishops with Rome in recent years - remains as bitter as ever. Tang could only watch from the sidelines in Hong Kong.

Tang Yee-ming was born in Hong Kong in 1908, taking the Christian name Dominic. He was educated by the Jesuits and later joined the order, being ordained priest in Shanghai in 1941, working in the city until 1946. He was later sent to Canton (Guangzhou), where he was consecrated titular bishop and apostolic administrator of the diocese in 1951. He was later taunted by the Communists that, as the retired Archbishop of Canton was a Frenchman, Tang had to defer to a foreigner.

The 1950s were a difficult period for the Catholic Church in China, as the new Communist regime sought to subordinate the Church to the government and isolate it from the Catholic Church in the rest of the world. The government ordered it to break all contact with the Vatican and set up as the new authority the Catholic Patriotic Association. Like many clerics, Bishop Tang refused to have anything to do with it and is reported to have threatened excommunication to those who joined.

On 5 February 1958 Tang was arrested, and spent the next 22 years as a "guest of the Chinese Communist Party in a variety of its prisons", as he put it. He was never formally charged or tried, and spent seven of the 22 years in solitary confinement. He was eventually released from prison on 9 June 1980 - at a time of relaxation in relations with the Vatican - and was allowed to return to Guangzhou to live quietly at the cathedral. He fell ill with suspected cancer and in November 1980 was allowed to travel to Hong Kong for surgery and to renew contact with relatives.

In the wake of Pope John Paul II's visit in February 1981 to Manila, where he made conciliatory noises about Catholics in China, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli flew up to Hong Kong to confer with Tang. At a press conference on 28 February, the two outlined what they hoped would be a new relationship between the Church in China and the government.

The Church indicated it would be prepared to acknowledge China's Three- Self Principles and would consider establishing diplomatic ties, while insisting that the Chinese Church should be able to maintain links with the Vatican.

Tang's health allowed him to make a long-desired visit to the Vatican a few months later, to be received by Pope John Paul II, who promptly named him Archbishop of Guangzhou (without first informing the Chinese authorities). Vatican hopes of rapprochement with China, with Archbishop Tang playing a leading role, were shattered. Within days, Tang's elevation was bitterly denounced by bishops and officials of the Catholic Patriotic Association, who accused the Vatican of "rudely interfering in the sovereign affairs of the Chinese Church". The Guangzhou CPA voted to dismiss Tang as bishop on 22 June. The Vatican was taken aback by the response as, in early May, Tang had been cordially received during a courtesy visit to the Chinese embassy in Rome.

Tang's return to China was now out of the question and he lived in exile in Hong Kong. From there he campaigned constantly for religious freedom in China. The continuing trust placed in him by the Pope was shown by the decision that he could continue in office after the age of 75 although, as Tang could not visit his diocese of Guangzhou, this was merely a symbolic move.

Earlier this year Tang moved to San Francisco, but died in Stamford while on a visit to his long-time friend and colleague, the exiled bishop of Shanghai, Cardinal Gong Pin-mei.

Felix Corley

Dominic Tang Yee-ming, priest: born Hong Kong 13 May 1908; ordained priest 1941; titular bishop and apostolic administrator of Canton (Guangzhou) diocese 1951-58; Archbishop of Canton 1981-95; died Stamford, Connecticut 27 June 1995.