“Clark on China”: An
Beijing's Bishop Li Shan at a priest's ordination at South Cathedral.
In this Catholic World
Report column, I will be
providing monthly reports on the situation of the Church in China. Today, China
has the world’s fastest growing economy, the fastest growing cities, the second
fastest growing population, and probably the fastest growing number of
Christians. When Chairman Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s
Republic in China in 1949 there were around four million Christians in China.
Today, 63 years later, there are around 70 million.
I was in China a few
months ago with several Catholic friends, with whom I discussed the situation
of the Church in that country, prayed, and visited new places with histories
both sad and joyful. During my many visits to China over the years, I have
learned that faith is strong there, perhapswho am I to judge?even stronger
than in my own country. In a country ostensibly cut off from the Holy Father, I
have seen a deeper commitment to him than I have in any other place. In a
country seemingly divided into two Catholic communities I have seen greater
unity than I have observed elsewhere.
And in a country where
Catholics have lived a life of, as they say, chiku (“eating bitterness”), I have seen countless
faithful bear witness to Henry David Thoreau’s remark, “The smallest seed of
faith is better than the largest fruit of happiness.”
It would be easy to write
a column each month on the “suffering Church” in Chinareporting arrests,
church closures, and state-Church tensions. But that would be a
misrepresentation of what Catholic life is like in China today in the 21st
century. It would also be easy to read official state sources about religion in
China and report on how China’s Catholics are thriving and happy under their
new state leaders. But I shall attempt to report on what is really happening in
China’s Catholic Church, taking as my motto Flannery O’Connor’s insightful
quip, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
The Church in China
In the opening line of
his 2007 encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI began with the words of St. Paul to the
Romans: “Spe salvi facti sumus,”
in hope we were saved. I think that one of the more positive trends in the
Church in China today is the trend toward a sense of hope. And it was Benedict XVI
who, on February 18, 2012, bestowed the red hat to Hong Kong’s Bishop John
Tong, making him a cardinal. It marked an important moment in the future of the
Catholic history of China; Tong is only the seventh Chinese man to be elected a
cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church, and he is the first Hong
Kong-born Chinese to receive this honor. Cardinal Tong’s appointment is
significant, not only as he is in many ways the successor of his influential
Chinese predecessor, Joseph Cardinal Zen, but because Tong is uniquely informed
regarding the state of the Church in China today.
Procession at South Cathedral, Beijing.
During the 1998 “Asian
Synod” of bishops, opened by a Mass at St. Peter’s offered by Pope John Paul
II, Tong intervened to tell his fellow bishops a few stories about the Church
in China. He recounted the story of Bishop Matthias Duan Yinming of Wanxian
Diocese, ordained a bishop by Pope Pius XII in 1949, who suffered severe
persecution for his faith during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The Red
Guards rushed into his cathedral and took down a statue of Our Lady, and
ordered Bishop Duan to crush her image with a hammer. He refused, reportedly
exclaiming, “You can take my head, but not my faith.” He was taken, tortured,
imprisoned, and placed in a labor-reform camp until 1979. Tong also spoke of a
young boy whose uncle, a priest, was publicly tried during the Cultural
Revolution for being a Catholic. The young boy was in the large crowd when he
heard the Red Guards sentence the priest to death, and he watched the bullets enter
his uncle’s heart, and watched the blood flow from his chest. As Tong recalls,
“At once he heard a voice inside him, calling him to the priesthood. He told
himself, ‘I must become a priest to continue my uncle’s work’.” (Bishop John Tong,
Asian Synod intervention, “The Church in China,” 1998). This is when the boy
first heard his call to serve God as a priest in China. These are the stories
of countless Chinese bishops, priests, nuns, and faithful, most of whose names
are lost to history.
While problems persist,
the present reality in China is not so bleak. I continue to hear reports from a
priest friend of how far the Church in China has come since the Maoist era. In
Shanxi, 45 catechumens were baptized in the cathedral recently on the Feast of
the Holy Family, and the numbers of baptisms continues to rise. Priests at
China’s seminaries are giving speeches to full crowds on the “new evangelization”
taught and encouraged by Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Bearing in mind that religious
orders have been prohibited in China, it is astonishing that Fr. Xia Changzhou,
a Franciscan, has begun spiritual instruction to 40 new Third Order Franciscans
in Shanxi. Tianjin’s Catholic diocese has begun open celebrations of its
100-year presence in the city, and in the opening Massesconcelebrated by 17
local prieststhe 1870 massacre of foreign nuns in Tianjin was openly discussed
in the homily.
Meanwhile, the state
authorities in Beijing are paying for the restoration of the large bishop’s
residence beside the historic North Church. The residence will be returned to
Beijing’s prelate once restoration is complete, after having been held by the
government for decades. China’s Catholics are not ignorant of present
struggles, but they are also not blind to recent improvements. One only has to
remember that during the Maoist era China’s churches were boarded up or used as
factories, warehouses, or restaurants. Today they are filled with the faithful
who benefit once again from the sacramental presence of God in the Eucharist.
Some Recent Reports
As the Chinese often say,
one can always find a little yin
in the yangthat in life there
are no purely good days or purely bad days. Just as we hear voices of hope
among China’s Catholics, we also hear voices of caution, among them Cardinal
Zen. In some recent remarks the Cardinal stated that “the Beijing Government
has not changed one iota in its policy of religious oppression, it still wants
absolute control of religion and, in the case of the Catholic Church, China
wants to detach the Church from obedience to the Holy See” (Joseph Cardinal
Zen, “What is the True Good of the Church in China,” February 8, 2012, Asia
News). In unusually frank terms,
Zen has asserted China’s political engine has become so intrusive in Catholic
religious affairs that “we are on the verge of a schism, with these repeated
statements of wanting to make an independent Church and continue to ordain
bishops without papal mandate” (Ibid). And so Zen calls China’s Catholics to
take a more firm stand against the state, as they did in the early 1950s.
The author speaking to local Catholics at a remote Hebei church before Mass.
We might ask what
precipitated the Cardinal’s firm remarks. As is quite common today, the Chinese
government insists on selecting and ordering the ordination of bishops without
the mandate of the Pope, which is canonically punishable with excommunication.
On July 14, 2011, a new bishop was ordained in Shantou, China, against the
Pope’s will, and among those bishops who participated in the rites was the
coadjutor bishop of Nanchang, John Baptist Li Suguang. To date all of the
bishops who participated in that ordination have apologized and received pardon
from the Holy Father except for Bishop Li Suguang, who has neither apologized
for nor recognized that this has created a division between himself and Rome.
And to add to this, in an interview in 30Giorni (30 Days), he asserted:
believe that from the beginning until now our Church in China has never changed
a single iota of the Apostolic Tradition that was delivered to it. We have not
changed a comma of the doctrine that concerns the faith and the great
discipline of the Church. We are united around the same sacraments, recite the
same prayers, in the continuity of the apostolic succession. This is the basis
of authentic communion. Even with our limitations and all our failings and
frailties, we are a part of, we are of the number of the Holy Universal Church
(30Giorni, September 2011).
Without a single
acknowledgment of his strained relationship with the Holy Father, Bishop Li
appears to be lecturing the Vatican on the “authentic communion” of the Chinese
Church with the universal Catholic Church.
The Challenge of China
Opinions and accounts are
so varied as to make reporting on the Church in China extremely difficult, confounding,
and frustrating. Here is one small example. While sharing lunch with an excited
young priest in Tianjin, I heard countless stories of how his native village in
northwest China has an active Catholic youth association, how the Tianjin
cathedral cannot accommodate all of the people who attend Masses on Sundays,
and how helpful visiting foreign priests have become in the ministry at
Tianjin. Several weeks after that lunch I shared another meal with a Chinese
priest in Rome, who stated repeatedly, “The priests and bishops in China are
brainwashed with nationalism, and corruption in the hierarchy is rampant.”
Anyone who carefully
watches the Church in China undoubtedly feels as Albert Einstein did when he
said he was used to spending “weeks in a state of confusion” trying to solve
complex problems. But what is clear is that the state of the Church in China is
unusual, and that the current state of Catholic life there is restrained and
distorted under the anti-religious pressures of the Communist authorities.
Christianity is a religion of truth, and Chinese Christians often feel that
their survival depends on either explicit untruth, or implicit distortion of
Priest offering Mass in a remote village church in Hebei.
In this column, then, I
will attempt to fairly and honestly report on the current state of the Catholic
Church in China, which is, we should remember, more than two centuries older
than the Catholic Church in America. If we begin the Church’s life in China
with the first Mass offered there, then it would be more than eight centuries
old. And in those 800 years, the Church has suffered and flourished in turns,
but it has always survived.
On a personal note, I
love China. Let me say it this way, 我真愛中國! I have many friends who live there, both Catholic
and non-Catholic, and I hope none of my columns ever suggests that I feel any
other way. But as Confucius said, “The object of a noble person is truth.” The
truth must be told of any place, America or China. I should end my first
column, though, by admitting that getting at the truth is deeply challenging
when discussing issues on China’s “sensitive” list, and Catholicism ranks
highly on that list.
describing Mount Lu in a poem, the famous poet and calligrapher, Su Dongpo,
Gazing horizontally at its ridges, one imagines its
Near and far, high and low, all are different,
Since you stand in the middle of the mountain,
You cannot see the true face of Mount Lu.
Dongbo’s depiction of how hard it is to describe a mountain so laden with
craggy cliffs and varied heights, perhaps, is the best way to imagine the
difficulties of discussing the Church in China. St. Paul’s words for the Church
in Rome, written nearly 2,000 year ago, provide apt advice for the Church in
China in the 21st century, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in
tribulation, and be constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12).
E. Clark, Ph.D.