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HomeArticleA Birthday Tribute to China’s Heroic Bishop Su

A Birthday Tribute to China’s Heroic Bishop Su

A Birthday Tribute to China’s Heroic Bishop Su

Bishop James Su Zhimin. (photo: Congressional Executive Commission on China Political Prisoner Database)

 

COMMENTARY: The People’s Republic of China wants Bishop James Su Zhimin forgotten — which is all the more reason for Catholics to honor his heroism.

Among millions of individual stories of extraordinary heroism and suffering under the Chinese Communist Party, one stands out for its sheer duration: Bishop James Su Zhimin, who turns 92 on July 10, has spent half his lifetime locked in prisons and detention centers, where he has been horrifically tortured. His crime is refusing to renounce his Catholic faith and papal authority, a prerequisite for joining the CCP’s Catholic Patriotic Association.

As an active layman during the time of Mao Zedong, he was first arrested in 1956 and was incarcerated for much of the late ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. He was also imprisoned during the “liberalizing” 1980s, when he was ordained a priest and appointed a bishop for Baoding, a city in Hebei Province 90 miles southwest of Beijing. He was once beaten with a board so savagely by security police that it splintered, prompting them in a sadistic frenzy to tear off the door frame for more wood to continue. Another time, he was beaten by police while suspended from the ceiling by his wrists. He was also confined over several days to a closet-sized cell filled with a layer of water to prevent sitting or sleeping. While doing hard labor as a means of “reeducation,” Bishop Su was denied adequate medical care after he broke both legs when a wheelbarrow of rocks fell on him.

In January 1994, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., visited Bishop Su in Beijing during a rare period of freedom for the cleric. Bishop Su was living in a room in the apartment of a Catholic family and there he held a Mass for the delegation with a chest of drawers serving as an altar and a bed used as a pew.

Trinitarian Father Stanley DeBoe, who accompanied Smith, told one of us (Nina Shea) that the bishop walked with a “distinctive limp” and was nearly deaf — disabilities the bishop said resulted from the prison abuse. He shrugged off Congressman Smith’s concern that the “underground” Mass was risky, saying, “If I have to go back to prison, that’s where my people are.” Bishop Su was quickly rearrested but was released nine days later, thanks to U.S. pressure.

In December 1995, Bishop Su was appointed, with papal approval, Baoding’s principal bishop. His predecessor, Bishop Peter Joseph Fan Xueyan, who also was repeatedly imprisoned, including for ordaining Bishop Su, had died in custody in 1992. (According to a 2017 report by the Hong Kong Diocese Justice and Peace Commission, it was believed that Bishop Fan “might have been tortured to death,” since fractures and bruising were visible on his remains.)

In May 1995, Bishop Su led a spectacular pilgrimage, with thousands of Catholics publicly praying as they processed to the shrine of Our Lady of China, in Donglu. Joseph Kung, the Connecticut-based Cardinal Kung Foundation’s director and Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei’s nephew, testified to the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China that, the following May, “5,000 Chinese soldiers, supported by dozens of armed cars and helicopters, destroyed and leveled” the Donglu shrine. The foundation, named for the renowned late bishop of Shanghai, who survived 33 years in CCP prisons, released a petition by Bishop Su on June 15, 1996. Addressed to the National People’s Congress, Bishop Su bravely asked it “to thoroughly investigate” specific abuses against Baoding Catholics.

All this made Bishop Su a wanted man and he went into hiding. On Oct. 8, 1997, he was found and arrested for the final time. Ever since, he has been held in secret detention, incommunicado, and denied a trial. In 2000, then-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick reported to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that Bishop Su joined the Patriotic Church and was freed. This was unvarnished CCP disinformation.

AHong Kong diocese report on Bishop Su entitled “The Unforgotten Pastor” mentions  a single sighting of the bishop on Nov. 19, 2003, when a relative accidentally spotted him being treated in Baoding First Central Hospital. They were prevented from meeting.

Bishop Su told Father DeBoe, “Tell my story.” That story should emphasize that the bishop defines himself as a pastor, not a martyr — though, like his predecessor, he may be that too. He is described as a joyful and articulate preacher, beloved by his flock.

While free, the Hong Kong diocese reports, he tirelessly celebrated Mass, administered the sacraments and comforted the Catholic laity in private homes since the party had banned him from churches. Father DeBoe attended one of his open-air liturgies in a cattle shed, with hundreds of Chinese Catholics, who came on bicycles, despite the risks. Over nearly 50 years of incarceration, he made prison his church. The Hong Kong report includes moving testimony from those who heard him preach the Gospel in the labor camps.

There is no official information about Bishop Su’s whereabouts or well-being. A photograph shows Cardinal Zen, also now 92, at a Hong Kong demonstration in 2015 petitioning for Bishop Su. That year, the bishop’s nephew was assured that authorities would report on the disappeared bishop if Vatican relations improved.

The Vatican-China agreement was signed in 2018 and twice renewed, without news. In 2020, Rep. Smith held hearings, entitled “Where is Bishop Su?” Beijing’s response was to impose sanctions on Smith.

Some say that Bishop Su is dead, but there is no evidence. To be sure, the CCP wants him forgotten. It fears and won’t tolerate any religious freedom or dissent.

As a Baoding priest said, “The influence of Bishop Fan or Bishop Su is actually the spirit of the older generation that affects us, encourages us and inspires us.” For these reasons, Catholics in the United States and around the world should not forget him, either.

 

Nina Shea is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a former Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Christopher Mee is the Hudson Institute’s research assistant and law student at The Catholic University of America.

 

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