WANXIAN, China—Bishop Matthias Duan Yinming of Wanxian, the only bishop in mainland China publicly appointed by the Vatican, said it is unlikely he will ever meet Pope John Paul II, but they are in contact by fax and phone.
Bishop Duan, whose ministry is also approved by the Chinese government, told UCA News, an Asian church news agency based in Thailand, that occasionally he and the Pope communicate with each other by fax in Latin.
“He has sent me greetings and asked about my health. I have sent the same to him,” the bishop said.
Father Matthew Ran Qiliang, a Wanxian parish priest, told UCA News that on the Pope's birthday in May, the bishop talked with the Holy Father by phone.
Bishop Duan said he regretted that he was not allowed to travel to the Vatican for the Synod of Bishops for Asia in 1998.
“It will be impossible for me to ever meet the Pope in my lifetime,” the 91-year-old bishop said.
Pope John Paul invited Bishop Duan and Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Xu Zhixuan to attend the synod, but the Chinese government rejected their travel applications. Neither bishop has received an invitation to attend the Pope's presentation of the post-synodal exhortation in New Delhi, India, Nov. 6.
Nevertheless, Bishop Duan offered a souvenir of his 50th episcopal anniversary — three wooden combs, a special product of the Wanxian area — to Pope John Paul through a Hong Kong delegate who was to go to New Delhi.
“Although this is a small gift, it represents my token of regard for the Pope,” Bishop Duan said.
Because Bishop Duan is a Vatican-appointed bishop, many priests and bishops in China have wanted him to ordain them.
“All of us in Sichuan province wanted to be ordained by him, even those from other provinces. We think this is more orthodox,” a Wanxian priest said.
Bishop Duan said that the seven episcopal ordinations he has officiated since 1959 are among the most joyful and unforgettable moments in his life.
Asked whether his Vatican-appointed status could help bring about communion in the divided church in China, he said he is now too weak for such a role.
“The (government-recognized) Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China is too weak,” he said, adding that the government-approved Catholic Patriotic Association is a barrier to church communion.
Despite his age and poor health, Bishop Duan still attends to diocesan affairs and is particularly worried about the relocation of five churches that will be submerged by 2003 due to the Three Gorges dam project on the Yangtze River. Lack of funds has prevented construction work on the new churches.
The bishop said he is also worried about formation of young priests and nuns. Vocations are scarce, and the young clergy and nuns still need further training before they can handle diocesan affairs well, he said.
Bishop Xu, 83, shares Bishop Duan's worries. “Transportation here is difficult, and our Catholics are few and poor.”
Since Bishop Duan is fluent in English, French, Italian and Latin, he still handles correspondence with people from other countries.
Suffering from hypertension and ill health, Bishop Duan stays in his room most of the time, but celebrates Mass daily. He is helped to walk for 15 minutes twice a day to improve blood circulation and lung function, Father Ran said.
Bishop Duan is seen as a caring elder who will listen to the family and daily life matters of any Catholic who comes to him, a layman told UCA News.
Born in 1908, Bishop Duan was ordained a priest in Rome in 1937 after obtaining a master's degree in theology at Rome's Urbano University. Upon his return to China the following year, he taught in a seminary.
In 1949, Pope Pius XII appointed him bishop of Wanxian. He was ordained Oct. 18, two weeks after the founding of the People's Republic of China. Between 1954 and 1966 he was forced to work in factories. In 1967 he was charged with counterrevolutionary crimes and sentenced to reform-through-labor. In late 1979, he was allowed to restore Wanxian Diocese.
Bishop Duan ordained Bishop Chen Shizhong of Yibin in 1985 and Bishop Michael Huang Woze of Nanchong and Bishop Xu in 1989. He also ordained the late Bishops Wang Juguang of Yibin (1959), Simon Liu Zongyu of Chongqing (1981), Chen Mushun of Zhaotong (1988) and Liu Xianru of Chengdu (1992).
In a separate development, a U.S.-based Chinese Catholic organization reported Nov. 2 that an underground bishop in China has been arrested and his whereabouts are unknown.
Bishop Jia Zhoguo, 65, who has already spent 20 years in Chinese prisons, was detained Aug. 15 and has been held at an unknown location ever since, according to the Cardinal Kung Foundation in Stamford, Conn.