Lent has begun, and Catholics in Western countries have likely selected something to “give up,” and the more devout have committed to Friday evening Stations of the Cross. In Beijing, where I am presently living to continue my research on the Church in China, Ash Wednesday service was overcrowded, and the homily was heartfelt; “Self-denial is countercultural,” the priest said, “but this time is an opportunity to grow closer to Jesus.” The hymn during the reception of “holy ashes,” shenghui 聖灰, intoned repeatedly, “Oh man, remember always that you are ashes (shenghui), and into ashes you shall return.” And after Mass we all funneled into the ninety-eight percent non-religious population of China’s twenty-million-person capital with a dark cross on our foreheads.
An hour before Mass on the first Sunday of Lent, three young, energetic Catholics, probably in their early twenties, led the filled church in the Stations of the Cross, which will be prayed by China’s Catholics on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays during Lent. The manner in which China prays the Stations is inspiring; each Station is done with prayers, bows, kneeling, and chanting. After a deep bow while intoning the name of God, tianzhu 天主, the faithful sing a lamentation: “My Lord, Jesus, I have sinned, and I detest what I have done. Along with the Holy Mother and all the saints, I share Your suffering; I share Your injuries; I share Your worries. I beg You, my Lord, remain forever in my heart, and I beseech you to have mercy on me . . .” And following this prayer, the booklet instructs the faithful to “kneel toward the holy altar of sacrifice.” The parish prayer booklets in every church in China contain Mass cards from Requiem Masses, reminding the faithful to “Please pray for the recently deceased, [name],” which seems appropriate during Lent. After the Stations of the Cross on this Sunday, a priest provided a brief instruction on the Gospel reading before the Mass, the entire congregation read the passage together out loud, and then the bell rang, marking the beginning of Holy Mass.
The celebrant wore the traditional purple vestments for Lenten Masses, and his beautifully embroidered chasuble featured the signs of Christ’s Passion – Cross, nails, and crown. In his homily the priest spoke about how important it is to, “remain vigilant against the temptations of the Enemy, pray for the Church, read your Bibles, and try your best to be holy.” After evening Mass, my wife and I stopped in the church bookstore, where I overheard a man ask the clerk, “Where are your catechisms? I need to know more about the faith.” As I entered the subway station to return to my small apartment in Beijing’s University District, I reflected on typical Lenten Masses in my home country, and I could not help but wonder if China’s historical Via Crucis has given its Catholics a special awareness of Lent’s meaning, an awareness that inspires them the pray the Stations more often, and with more solemnity.