On July 3, in a move that was widely interpreted as a gesture of good will toward the Roman Catholic Church, Chinese authorities announced the release of the Vatican-appointed bishop of Shanghai from the prison where he had been locked up since 1955.
More than three months later, the prelate, Ignatius Kung, 84, has become a mystery figure in China.
Officials of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Assn., the government-controlled organization which does not recognize the Vatican, have blocked all public access to Kung and it remains unclear how much freedom he is being allowed.
Kung, whose Chinese name is Gong Pinmei, had been incarcerated for three decades for "high treason." He was probably the most famous of the thousands of Catholic priests imprisoned in China for their refusal to abandon their loyalty to the Vatican and to recognize a separate state church set up by the Communist regime.
At the time of his parole in July, the official New China News Agency said Kung had "admitted his crime and showed repentance." A day later, a Chinese news report said Kung had "kissed the ring" of the Chinese-appointed bishop of the Catholic Patriotic Diocese of Shanghai and had agreed "to act under the bishop's guidance."
Since then, Kung has reportedly remained under the protection or control of officials of the Catholic Patriotic Assn. in Shanghai. He has not attended Mass or appeared anywhere else in public. No foreign reporters have been permitted to speak with him.
The only reported interview with Kung was conducted by another official outlet, the China News Service, which last July, just after his release, quoted him as saying, "Though I am quite advanced in years, I will do my best to contribute to the modernization of China."
In September and again last week, spokesmen for the Shanghai Patriotic Catholic Assn. turned down requests by The Times to see Kung.
An association spokesman explained that Kung wishes to rest and does not wish to see any visitors. The spokesman declined to let a reporter speak directly with Kung over the telephone.
Good Health Reported
A spokesman for the Patriotic Assn. said last week that Kung is in good health. But the spokesman said it is still not clear exactly when Kung will be ready or willing to appear in public, to talk over the telephone, or to meet with a foreign reporter.
According to the spokesman, Kung is not under house arrest and enjoys complete freedom to move about Shanghai. The spokesman said that while Kung does not go to Mass, he participates in religious activities on an "individual" basis.
According to Roman Catholic priests in Hong Kong, Kung had originally been incarcerated in the old British prison in Shanghai. "I met people in prison with him," one source said. "In prison, at least for a time, he was well treated."
Until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Kung had two rooms to himself and was permitted access to books. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, Kung, like most other prisoners, was apparently accorded much harsher treatment and was reportedly kept for a time in a labor camp in rural Anhui province. He was subsequently returned to the Shanghai prison.
Kung's release in July was hailed by Vatican officials as a sign that a reconciliation with the Chinese government might be in the offing.
In late July, Pope John Paul II told a gathering of 10,000 people in St. Peter's Square in Rome that the Catholic church "is sympathetic to the commitment to modernization and progress in which the Chinese people are engaged."
Archbishop Achille Silvestrini, the Vatican secretary for public affairs, praised the release of Kung and said, "We wish the dialogue (with China), which was so unfortunately interrupted after 1945, may start again."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has maintained that the Vatican must first sever its diplomatic relations with Taiwan before there can be any rapprochement between Rome and Peking.
China's Patriotic Catholic Assn., established in 1957, is run by the government's Bureau of Religious Affairs. The bureau itself is under the guidance of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party Central Committee.
According to a 1984 report by the human rights group Amnesty International, at least 10 other Roman Catholic priests are still being confined in China for continuing to profess loyalty to the Vatican and refusing to cooperate with the official Chinese church.