Celebrating the birthday of a Catholic bishop who may have died

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The popular Baoding bishop would have turned 90 earlier this month, but no one has seen him since 2003.

by Zhang Feng

An old image of Bishop Su Zhimin. From Twitter.

On July 10, 2022, Catholic Bishop James Su Zhimin turned 90. At least July 10 is when his birthday was most often celebrated, although in some official records his birth date is July 1, 1932. Catholics in his diocese of Baoding, Hebei province, have started preparing for his 90th birthday celebrations in 2021. There was one problem though, they did not know if their bishop was alive or dead. He has been in prison since 1997 and was last seen by fellow believers in 2003.

Soon, however, a second problem arose for Baoding Catholics. The CCP told them that celebrating Bishop Su’s birthday was absolutely forbidden. The Baoding context is particularly problematic for the Communist Party. Despite the 2018 Vatican-China agreement, it is one of the country’s most important centers for “conscientious objectors”, i.e. priests and lay Catholics who refuse the Vatican’s suggestion. to join the Patriotic Catholic Church and pursue a precarious existence. outside of official structures.

Since January 2022, also in an effort to prevent the July celebrations, at least ten Catholic priests from Baoding Diocese who are conscientious objectors have been arrested. Surveillance intensified as July approached. Yet it has been reported in Bitter Winter that masses, where priests were available, or other underground ceremonies to honor Bishop James Su Zhimin on his birthday were held in private homes in Baoding, Ansu and elsewhere, escaping police surveillance.

A lay conscientious objector from Ansu told Bitter Winter that thousands of people were praying for the bishop across the diocese, in small “and in some cases not so small” groups. “If Bishop Su died, he said, he had a glorious birthday in heaven.”

Bishop James Su Zhimin is widely considered a hero by Chinese Catholics. He was a lay Catholic leader who was arrested three times between 1956 and 1975. Released in 1979, he studied underground to become a priest and was ordained in 1981 at age 49. This led to his fourth arrest in 1982. Released in 1986, in 1988 he was chosen as Auxiliary Bishop of Baoding and was soon arrested again, for the fifth time.

Baoding Roman Catholic Cathedral (controlled by the Patriotic Catholic Church).
Baoding Roman Catholic Cathedral (controlled by the Patriotic Catholic Church). Credits.

Upon his release, he was consecrated a bishop in the underground church in 1993 and promoted by the Holy See Bishop of Baoding in 1995, which led to his sixth arrest. His case began to be known abroad and, at the express request of the United States, he was released, then placed under house arrest (which he considered his seventh arrest). While he continued to be popular among Catholics, he was imprisoned again in 1997.

This eighth arrest was the last. The CCP managed to keep the name of the prison where he was detained secret. He was “discovered” by chance by relatives at a hospital in Baoding where he had been taken for eye problems in 2003. But as soon as he was recognized, the police took him out of the hospital. This was the last seen by relatives or friends, although in 2015 his family learned he was alive and would be released if the Vatican “improved” its relations with China.

This happened with the Vatican-China agreement of 2018, and Catholics in Baoding fully expected that with the signing of this agreement, Bishop Su would be released. But that didn’t happen, maybe because he was no longer alive.

“Agreements and dialogue cannot be based on lies,” Ansu’s Catholic conscientious objector told Us who spoke to Bitter Winter. “If Bishop Su is alive, they should release him. After his last arrest, they would have kept him in prison for twenty-five years. If he’s dead, they should tell the Vatican and us what happened to him. Before signing for the renewal of the agreement, the Vatican should resolutely ask the CCP to tell the truth about Bishop Su.

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