In October 1999, at the age of 82, Bishop James Xie Shiguang of Mingdong was invited by Chinese government officials "for a chat" that lasted two months at an unknown location. This detention meant little to him: he had already spent 28 years in prisons and "re-education" camps for rejecting the government-created Catholic Patriotic Association and remaining faithful to the Pope. Thereafter, Xie was free but under surveillance till he died.
Five decades after it outlawed the Catholic Church loyal to the Vatican, the Chinese Communist Party has failed to crush what remains arguably the largest single illegal religious community in the world. Yet the Party has not given up on repression. The year of Bishop Xie's last arrest, the authorities destroyed 13 churches in his diocese to show him who was boss.
Xie was born in Baoding in Hebei province, northern China, in 1917, the second of five children in a Catholic family. In 1929 he began studies at the city's junior seminary. He joined a Trappist monastery in 1937, but illness forced him to leave two years later. During the tense Japanese occupation of China, he studied philosophy and theology at Beijing seminary, moving in 1942 to a seminary in inner Mongolia and in 1943 to another in Shanxi province. His studies were then halted by the Second World War. Resuming his interrupted studies in 1946 in Shandong diocesan college, he transferred in 1947 to Shanghai. The following year, amid the growing political turmoil and civil war, he moved to the Fujian province seminary.
Ordained priest in 1949, he then faced the agonising decision: should he follow many of his classmates in fleeing overseas to escape Mao's new, anti-religious Communist regime? But, at the urging of his bishop, Xie courageously opted to remain, heading north to become a curate in a parish.
As the atmosphere darkened - in 1951 the government ordered all contact with the Vatican severed and forced all clergy to renounce their ties to the worldwide Church - Xie would soon join many Catholic priests in prison. First arrested in 1955 for refusing to join the state-sponsored Catholic movement, he was freed after a year. He was arrested again in 1958 and sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment, though he would not be released until 1980. He was therefore in prison during the Cultural Revolution, when public religious life was all but destroyed.
In 1984 Xie was secretly consecrated bishop of Mingdong in the south-eastern province of Fujian with Vatican approval (though, as is customary, he was not listed in the Vatican yearbook). He tried to lead the estimated 75,000 Catholics of his diocese as best he could. But later that year he was arrested in Baoding, not being freed until 1987. In 1990 he was again seized and held for a further two years. Although already 83, he immediately plunged back into pastoral work, founding a religious order for women.
Despite intermittent hopes among Catholics that their Patriotic counterparts would be allowed to break their dependency on the state and reforge links with the worldwide Church, Bishop Xie never saw the day when his community could live out its faith in public in freedom.
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