Bishop Andrea Han Jingtao died last December 30 at the age of 99. He is considered a “giant of culture and faith” of the underground Church. Some people close to him have drawn together these biographical notes from his own words. His foundation of a male and a female congregation. His commitment to evangelization during imprisonment, police checks, expropriations, community closures.
Siping (AsiaNews) – Bishop Andrea Han Jingtao died last December 30th. In the days that have followed, this document was delivered to AsiaNews: an outline of his life’s story, with many parts transcribed from his own words. Some Chinese priests say that the text was written by people close to the bishop, who wrote down things heard from the prelate, considered a “giant of culture and faith” of the underground Church.
This story reveals that Msgr. Han not only founded a female congregation, but also a male one, which is a rarity in China. Another element that transpires is the profound freedom with which he even used his house in the (state) university to hold catechetical and liturgical meetings. The entire text transpires the great resistance of these unofficial communities who, despite moments of imprisonment, house and community seizures, were able to live their vocation and their commitment to evangelize China.
Bishop Han Jingtao was born in 1921 into a devout Catholic family from Shan Wanzi in Weichang County (Hebei). His grandfather Han Guotai had six brothers; his father was called Han Chaojun, his mother was from the Zhao family. His parents and grandfather were all pious Christian faithful from Korea. The bishop came from a wealthy family and was also the eldest son. Already at the age of 8 he lived in the town of Da Yingzi, studying in the college founded by a Canadian missionary congregation. At the age of 14, after the summer holidays he decided to leave with other students, getting on a train that took them to the minor seminary of Siping, thus commencing the journey of their vocation.
His studies, in close contact with the rector of the minor seminary, lasted 8 years. The future bishop devoted himself entirely to study. While the others went out to play, he returned to the seminary library to study, even late at night, and when he couldn’t sleep, he thought back to what he had learned that day. He felt infinitely gratified by this life and with his grades he surpassed all the other students one by one.
Before the end of their studies, the rector gave them one final piece of advice. It burned in the bishop’s memory. As he was bidding them farewell, the rector told them: “Wherever you go, you must carry out your sacred ministry well. This is what will keep you steadfast, this is how you will avoid sinking into secularism.” These words, decades later, resonated in the bishop. He himself affirmed that “it is thanks to this idea and to perseverance in ministry that my vocation remained steadfast until now, in the face of so many sufferings and vicissitudes”.
Thanks to his experience, the bishop also taught us this idea and behaviour: we in turn must walk courageously, according to the teaching and model of the bishop, towards the goal that the Saviour has set for us, until the day of coming of the Lord.
According to Bishop Shi’s plan [Msgr. Louis Lapierre, missionary from Quebec], as a seminarian in Changchun major seminary, the future bishop Han was in charge of the seminary library. This too was a particular grace that God gave him, since he had a passion for studying. Whenever he had time, he went to the library to read and study, absorbing knowledge and making new discoveries.
Around 1942, he took his father to be examined by a doctor, who confirmed that he had cancer of the oesophagus. Bishop Han never returned home until the moment of his father’s death at the age of 42. Bishop Han recalls: “That time when I accompanied my father home and then left, it was the last time I was able to see my father”.
On 14 December 1947 he was ordained a priest and from then on he dedicated himself to the education of the women religious. At the end of 1949, with the consent of Bishop Shi, he went to the Franciscans of Tianjin for a 30-day spiritual retreat. As soon as the retreat ended, a faithful from Shanghai asked him to meet him to give him a message.
“Bishop Zhao – remembers Msgr. Han – from the diocese of Lindong asked me to go to Shanghai, he wanted to see me”. After leaving for Shanghai, he met Bishop Zhao Yumin (the name he had assumed when he arrived in China).
He described the crisis that the Church in China was facing at that time. In fact, Fr. Wang Liangzhuo of Sichuan had launched the Three Self Movement for Church Reform, advocating “self-propagation, self-support and self-government”, getting rid of the Pope’s interference and expelling foreign missionaries.
Mission in a secularized world
“At that time – says Msgr. Han – I realized that the Church was facing a great challenge and needed strong stamina, otherwise the Church would not be able to resist. This is why I decided to begin a religious congregation, to fight this negative power together with the Church”.
“On January 1st 1950 I received the booklet on the Legion of Mary. The Pope’s special envoy, Fr Chen Zhemin, had brought it to Siping. With the consent of Bishop Shi and thanks to his help, I founded the religious congregation and developed the Legions of Mary in the diocese of Siping. I told the members who intended to enter the congregation that they are the soldiers of Christ, urging them to pray and chant the psalms, teaching them to pray on their knees, going forward with their heads held high, transmitting the bond of peace, telling the young people that they were the combatants for Jesus. These people then became the first members of the congregation which, however, had not yet fully assumed a form of religious institution: it was rather a charitable association”.
“In 1952, Bishop Shi of the Diocese of Siping died. Before his death he assigned administration of the diocese to Fr Chang Zhenguo, appointing him successor of the bishop. He entrusted me with the post of assistant pastor, to assist Father Chang in managing the affairs of the diocese. Before the advent of persecution, every day we encouraged our faithful with the word, accompanying them and strengthening them in faith, facing the test that was about to arrive. In the spring of 1953 I was taken away by the police under the pretext of being the priest-educator of the Legions of Mary. From here I began my life of imprisonment which lasted 27 years. Because of this, the new youth community fell apart. In the early 1980s, China launched its Economic Reforms and Opening. Deng Xiaoping, the country’s leader, initiated an institutional reform for the use of English. And so, the same prison authorities made me work as an English language teacher at Changchun Normal University. Two months later, I was hired as an associate professor at the Institute of the History of Classical Civilization at the Normal University of the Northeast. I specialized in teaching undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students. I introduced many Chinese to the study of classical languages and cultures, Latin and Greek. During the holidays I ran to Siping first of all to visit the elderly nuns of the Rosary Congregation, belonging to the diocese. I learned that all the young people of the new youth community had now married, so I began to rebuild it thinking of uniting the older sisters to the new community of sisters. Unfortunately, due to their advanced age, they now had no strength to undertake renewing the congregation. This was the reason why I had to start all over again, selecting young people with a vocation to consecrated life and starting the first works of the current congregation”.
Meanwhile, the diocese has started another evangelizing work, namely organizing the faithful, encouraging and guiding them, in evangelization activities in the diocese, thus obtaining great results: a large number of non-believers wanted to receive baptism. Between 1991 and 1992, the number of converts rose to nearly 1,000. At the end of 1991, the male novices numbered 20, the female novices a hundred”.
“In 1993 the first health centre and the first retirement home were founded. As the sisters of the congregation were not available, the faithful themselves took on the care management. With the increase in new faithful and thanks to the influence of charitable works in universities and in society, we no longer had to hide as we once did, we opened up to the public and vocations also increased. The house granted by the university had now become a place of evangelization; the faithful came every day for Mass; the nuns gave catechesis lessons, provided services to the faithful, etc. ”.
Fruitful amid persecution
“In 1993, the male novices all left without warning. Plunged into extreme pain, I prayed incessantly in front of the Blessed Sacrament, receiving strong encouragement to go forward. A few days later, there was progress: in 1994 the number of novices reached more than 10 people. I also invited other diocesan priests to help with the management. Shortly before Christmas 1995, a priest from another diocese asked to join the congregation, which finally had its own staff. Soon after, that priest was arrested and imprisoned. He was released three months later, but police checks continued. On December 23, 1996, I went out for an engagement and on my return I found my home under police control. In this way, the house could no longer be used as a place of evangelization. On January 16, 1997, the sisters’ mother house was also surrounded by more than 10 police cars, and the congregation of the sisters was dissolved for the first time. From this moment on, the female order began a long “pilgrimage”. Another of God’s plans was unfolding: to no longer deal with the educational work in the university, dedicating myself personally to the formation of seminarians. In September 1999, the first two Seiminarians were ordained priests: I saw in them the light of a new diocesan strength. In 2000 and 2002, 9 more seminarians were progressively ordained, further giving new strength to the diocese”.
In the second half of April 2003, the seminary was raided and seized, and the Eucharist was taken away. After numerous vicissitudes, with the merciful help of God, the Body of Christ was brought back, without being profaned.
In May 2005, the headquarters of the congregation in Shenyang was again discovered by the police authorities: nearly 40 nuns were sent away, and the headquarters seized. In July 2008, during the Olympics in China, another small community in Shenyang was raided, and 4 nuns were taken away and released only the next day. The police seized nearly 20 parcels of books, letters and documents of all kinds. Only in 2011 were most of the sisters able to return to the mother house.
In early 2014, a provisional version of the congregation’s rules was instituted.
“Since my private home was discovered and controlled by the police in November 2017, I cannot act freely at the moment and I am forced to leave all business, without being able to manage it publicly.”
“At the beginning of 2018, the community of sisters was once again dissolved. So far they have not yet managed to come together in a large community, but they only manage to live together in small communities. However, we thank God for having accompanied us until today”.