The “Underground” Bishop of Kaifeng Is Dead

December 28, 2022
Stone erected within the Kaifeng Diocese

The announcement comes from local sources. Bishop Joseph Gao Hongxiao, “underground” bishop of the Kaifeng Diocese, died at the age of 77, at his home in Meixian, his native district in Shaanxi province.

A member of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, he was secretly ordained coadjutor bishop on January 1, 2005 by his predecessor, Bishop Liang Xisheng, who died in 2007 at the age of 84. According to canon law, Bishop Gao became the legitimate successor as diocesan bishop, but he was never recognized by the Chinese authorities.

This led to great difficulties for the exercise of his episcopal ministry, because in Kaifeng, the separation between “official” and “underground” communities is marked. This difficulty has continued even though the “official” seat of this Church, located in the province of Henan, has also been vacant since the death of the illegitimate bishop in 2001.

Since the arrival of Matteo Ricci, there has been talk in Kaifeng of communities of “cross worshippers,” probably established by Nestorian missionaries in the first millennium. From the 17th century, the Jesuits and Lazarists traveled to the region, until the Propagation of the Faith entrusted it to the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in the second half of the 19th century.

The first two bishops Msgr. Noah Giuseppe Tacconi and Msgr. Gaetano Pollio were members of PIME, the latter was imprisoned in 1951 and then forced into exile by Mao's China. Kaifeng’s first “official” bishop was Msgr. Stephen He Chunming, illegitimately ordained in 1962, who had served as Bishop Pollio’s vicar before he was forced to join Party bodies.

The Kaifeng seat is now vacant. An estimated 30,000 faithful live in the Kaifeng Diocese. It should be noted that there are currently six vacant episcopal sees in all of Henan: Kaifeng, Zhengzhou, Shangqiu, Luoyang, Zhumadian, and Xinxiang.

The question of the dioceses that remain without a bishop is one of the critical points of the provisional agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China, renewed last October. To date, more than a third of Chinese dioceses – which exceed 100 – are without a bishop, and the last episcopal ordination took place on September 8, 2021 in Wuhan.