A few weeks ago I received an unexpected package in the post. It contained two purple stoles, an alb, an amice, and an assortment of slightly tired purificators and corporals for the altar. And a letter.
The author – I’ll call her Mary – explained that the linen and vestments had belonged to Bishop John Han Dingxiang of the Diocese of Yongnian in China. Bishop Han had spent more than 30 years in various forced labour camps and prisons, first as a layman and then as a bishop, for his love for Christ and his loyalty to the Catholic Church. When he was dying in September 2007, still in police detention, he was allowed a hastily arranged visit from his family, but not from a priest who could give him the Last Sacraments. The authorities cremated his body within hours of his death and buried his ashes by night in a public cemetery.
There is a famous photograph of him stepping through the fourth floor window of a police block on to a balcony that’s enclosed by a cage. One hand holds the bars to steady himself, the other raises a crucifix above his head. He seems to be saying, “Don’t worry, I’m OK” and “I haven’t lost my faith in the Lord.” And there is a poignant symbolism in the way the crucifix juts out through the top of the cage into a place of freedom while the bishop himself is trapped, as if to say that true freedom is found in Christ, whatever the external restrictions of our own circumstances.
How did Bishop Han’s vestments come to me? Mary had met him through her work for a Catholic charity in 1998. He sent her these personal tokens later in the year as a sign of his appreciation for her visit and her support. She wanted to pass them on to a priest who would understand their significance, and thought of me because she knew of my love for China.
My father is Chinese. His family comes from Guangdong in the south. And my interest in the situation of Chinese Catholics grew after my one visit to the country in 2011. I was able to meet faithful from all sorts of different backgrounds, and I got a sense of the rich and maddeningly complicated reality of the Church in China. I learnt an invaluable lesson: never kid yourself that you truly understand the situation there.
One of the highlights of the trip was praying with elderly parishioners who had learnt their faith as young people before communist rule was established in 1949, and had somehow held on to it through all those years. Another was visiting the grave of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in Beijing, and seeing the South Cathedral that he built in 1601.
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