Remembering the dead in China

       “Remembrance of history brings us closer to God,”Pope Francis said.

        Catholics in China, as with the universal Church, remember their Church leaders and those who have departed from this world, and pray for all souls in Purgatory in every November, particularly on All Souls Day.

        Parishes and dioceses in Anyang, Baoding, Bameng, Beijing, Hohhot, Yuci, Wenzhou and Xianxian, to name just a few, celebrated Masses for the departed and organised visits to cemeteries.

Chinese culture and Church practice

        Buried in China's church graveyards are the unspoken testimonies of the bishops, priests, religious sisters of the Church in China who gave witness to the faith through love, joys and suffering over the past decades.“Praying for them is a way to reflect on their journeys of faith and relive the memories of their happiness and Calvary in life,”priests in China said.

        Chinese faithful pray for the souls in Purgatory throughout November, but especially during the first eight days to obtain Indulgences from the treasury of grace in the Church.

        Praying for the dead is understood among the Chinese as a practice of filial piety, a Confucian virtue. As cited in the Analects of Confucius (circa 500 BC),“When the dead are shown proper reverence and the memory of distant ancestors is kept alive, the people's virtue is at its highest (慎終追遠).”

        For Chinese, death is traditionally viewed as sad, morbid and fearful, something that people would rather not think about and certainly not discuss. Catholics use this opportunity to explain to catechumens and the newly baptised the Catholic perspective of death—an essential part of the faith—and that the Christian understanding of death is inseparable from the understanding of life and is reflected in funeral practices and prayers for the dead.

Family and Church people

        The remembrance of parents always draws Catholics to join All Souls Day prayers. In Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, there was a time when children of the deceased seldom attended Masses. However, after being moved by seeing Church members praying for the souls of their parents, they returned to the Church.

        Some recalled the friendship and faith of their deceased companions in the faith. Father Pedro Yu Heping of Ningxia (1974 - 2015) died at the age of 41 under mysterious circumstances. His smile, zeal for evangelising and formation, and concern for the poor is always remembered.

        A priest in Hebei lamented:“Three years ago, you left us quietly, without realising it was a departure forever. When I saw you again, your body was already so cold! Dear brother, we had shared joys and adversities. We want to keep fighting and walking with you in this journey to heaven! Now please pray for us in heaven! Let us follow the footsteps of Jesus, of all martyrs to find you! Hope to reunite someday in heaven!”

        In a song titled, "Peace," dedicated to Father Yu, the lyrics described him as having no fear of power; showing truth, generosity and humility while radiating a ray of peace.

        While the Church in China has been studying the fruits of the recent Synod of Bishops on Youth, it was saddened to lose a religious sister at the tender age of 22. Sister Teresa Niu Yanli (1996 - 2018) of the Missionary Sisters of Seven Sorrows of Taiyuan, Shanxi, suffered a heart attack and died on November 16.

        A guitar player, she was dedicated to journeying with young people and much involved in the faith formation of young girls. Her vitality, creativity and listening will be missed by many. Her funeral took place on November 22.

        Sister Niu's departure calls to mind the needs of young people—listening and accompaniment—as expressed by the synod. Also, it reminds us of 19-year-old St. Nunzio Sulprizio from Naples, Italy, (1817 - 1836), canonised on October 14. He is remembered for his model life of gentleness, holiness and patience, a heroic virtue for all people.

        On All Souls Day this year, Pope Francis prayed at the Garden of Angels, a cemetery for the unborn on the outskirts of Rome.“Today is a day of memory, a day to remember those who walked before us, accompanied us, gave us life,”he noted.

        Catholic mothers in China told China Bridge that they rememebered their unborn  on the All Souls Day with bitterness, fear and a sense of guilt. They admitted it was difficult to forgive themselves and prayed that God would accept the souls of their children.

        The One-Child Policy, adopted in 1979 to control the growth of population, but which was ended in early 2016, resulted in abortions, the abandonment of female children and infanticide.

        Death and life are inseparable. Two young Catholics in their early 30s who escaped abortion, shared their gratitude to God and their families. One said that their parents moved to another province to escape the forced abortion, and here he was, a joyful, faithful and fervent Catholic.

Restrictions and reconciliation

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Masrking All Souls' Day in Xi'an. Photo: courtesty of the Diocese of Xi'an


        Remembering history brings us closer to God, because it plays an important role in the peace-building and reconciliation processes.

        On November 3, more than 300 people from the official Church community in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, visited the grave of Bishop James Lin Xili (1918 - 2009), of the unofficial Church in Wenzhou. He had the papal mandate but was not recognised by the Chinese government. He was jailed for 16 years for his faith and perseverance, yet was respected by both communities.

        In his homily, Father Huang Chaoxin of Wenzhou, described Bishop Lin as“firm in his faith and vocation”at a time of restrictions and tribulations. The priest said he hoped the local Church would“walk together and achieve communion.”

        Later, officials prevented other priests from visiting Bishop Lin's grave. Then, Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin the ordinary of Wenzhou, was detained by officials.

        In Henan, Catholics are cautious when visiting the graves of their bishops and priests who suffered years of religious persecution. The tightening of security made it difficult for Church groups there to organise pilgrimages to cemeteries. Yet, some priests managed to visit the clerics’ graves alone to avoid attention.

        Bishop Peter Li Hongye of Luoyang (Henan) (1920 - 2011) was remembered for his faith and perseverance. Jailed for decades, the bishop was not recognised by the Chinese government. His tomb was destroyed shortly after his burial. The plaque and tombstone of his grave were again destroyed in April 2018

        Many considered the restrictive measures not only as a means of implementing the government's religious regulations, but also a way to frighten those who intend to convert to Christianity, and to control the influence of religion in China.

        Since early 1980s, Church leaders have been released from prison and reform-through-labour farms. They returned to their dioceses and restored the local Churches. Their efforts are always remembered. According to Father Gianni Criveller of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, an expert on Christianity in China, the five Church leaders who significantly influenced Church development in China were Ignatius Cardinal Kung Pinmei of Shanghai (1901 - 2000), Bishop Joseph Fan Xueyan of Baoding (1907 - 1992), Archbishop Dominic Tang Yee-ming of Canton (1908 - 1995), Bishop Anthony Li Du'an of Xi'an (1927 - 2006) and Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian (1916 - 2013).

        “They were great Church leaders for their people, all suffered persecutions and great difficulties. They made different and difficult pastoral choices, always with the best interests of the People of God at heart,”Father Criveller said in June 2018.

        Some Catholics in China prayed that the remains of the clerics and those killed in the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) be transferred to churches someday. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”(2 Timothy 4:7).

        Crisp leaves in deep autumn seem like a sign of grief over the loss of the loved ones, but they are also a sign of hope for eternal life. Remembrance of history brings us closer to God.

        Mary, Help of Christians, for China we implore days of blessing and of peace. Amen! Annie Lam

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