“Partakers in the Suffering”: Recent events in China’s hopeful Church

The situation in China is far more complex than a simple chronicle of antagonism, suspicion, and persecution; progress and hope also punctuate the narrative

fr. yu heping (anthony clark collection)

red cross protests at the forbidden city (anthony clark collection)

Beloved, do not be startled at the trial by fire now taking place among you to prove you, as if something strange were happening to you; but rejoice, in so far you are partakers of the Suffering of Christ.” (1 Peter 4:12)

“Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief,” asserts Article thirty-six of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, “No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.” This guarantee to allow “freedom of religious belief” is followed by the caveat, “The state protects normal religious activities.” Christians in China, and in most nations today for that matter, continue to struggle to navigate in a political framework wherein they are promised freedom to be Christian, but only if one’s Christianity conforms to the state’s definition of “normal.”

The Columban missionary to China, Fr. Edward MacElroy (1911-80), who was arrested at gunpoint in the middle of the night by Communist police in 1951, compared religious freedom in China to being condemned to death:

A man has been condemned to death. He remains free to walk around his cell. He may be free to walk, under close supervision, around the prison yard. When the last morning comes he will be free to walk to the scaffold. There is the freedom enjoyed by the Catholic Church in China. It is the freedom to walk down the years, at the point of a Communist gun, to the day when she will die. [1]

Catholics in China today are for the most part living their faith with as much routine as possible, but events in recent months have reminded the faithful that late night knocks at the door remain inauspicious signs that the situation is still precarious. But as Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “Hope is practiced through the virtue of patience, which continues to do good even in the face of apparent failure.” [2] That Catholics in China have grown from three million to around twenty million since the advent of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 is evidence of the virtue of hope in practice.

Hong Kong

After Hong Kong bookseller Lee Bo and four others had sold works critical of Mainland China’s government, especially of the private life of President Xi Jinping, at least five men involved with publishing such books disappeared. Rumors in Hong Kong were that these men, critical of the government’s policies and practices, were kidnapped and taken to the Mainland. Angry protests sparked in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and despite recent reports of possible wrongdoing by one of the missing men, tensions between the Mainland and Hong Kong have reached its most fevered pitch since the leadership of Xi Jinping began in 2012. [3]

Whatever the circumstances of these disappearances in Hong Kong, China’s authority under Xi have grown increasingly entrenched in the more hardline behaviors of the President’s predecessors. In May 2015, Xi Jinping affirmed his belief that “Active efforts should be made to incorporate religions into socialist society” and he continued to reiterate the Communist Party’s commitment to winning the hearts and minds of China’s people for the Party. [4] During Xi’s visit to the United States in September 2015, Christian scholars and China-watchers were aware that during the year prior to his visit China’s authorities had dispatched police and wrecking crews to remove more than 1,300 crosses from churches, and in some cases razed churches to the ground. [5] Thousands of Protestant and Catholic Christians protested by carrying red crosses in large scale rallies, and several pastors who openly resisted the state’s decision to remove crosses from public view were themselves removed from public view. People in Hong Kong and within Mainland China have become more openly critical of what has become an increasingly unpredictable situation for those who do not fit into the larger schema of China’s vision of a “harmonious society”.


Discussions among China’s Catholics still largely revolve around the death of Bishop Cosmos Shi Enxiang, who I mentioned in this February 2015 post. Shi spent almost half of his ninety-three years of life in prison for refusing to renounce his loyalty to the pope, and he died last year in prison. Regular readers of my articles will recognize his story as a common one for many of China’s Catholic bishops. Bishop Shi was ordained a priest in 1947, and was one of the last living bishops in China who was selected by the Vatican and consecrated without state approval, in 1982. His insistent commitment to the pope’s authority precipitated state antagonisms against him. bishop shi enxiang and bishop su zhimin (anthony clark collection)
Another bishop on the minds of Chinese Catholics is James Su Zhimin, known for his piety and deep love for the Church, who was arrested in 1986 as a “counterrevolutionary.” Bishop Su was labelled as a “counterrevolutionary” because of his refusal to join the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. He escaped from detention in 1997, but was quickly located and re-arrested. In 2003, his family learned that he was in a hospital at Baoding, but he was removed by authorities soon after his discovery and has not been seen since.

Bishops Shi and Su are among those often prayed for by “underground” Catholics who gather at the tomb of the famous Jesuit missionary, Fr. Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). In September 2015, Chinese Catholics from Hebei sent an appeal to Xi Jinping asking for Bishop Su’s release, but China’s authorities informed the petitioners that they were unaware of the bishop’s current location. [6] At present, China’s government has not officially acknowledged that Bishops Shi or Su are dead or alive. The state’s intentions for China’s Catholics and the situation of those Catholics still in prison remain nebulous.

Winston Churchill once said of Russia that it is, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” [7] This is largely true of China’s religious policies, especially when a religion such as Christianity is seen to impinge upon China’s national ideology, which is today preoccupied with the centralization of power and the expansion of China’s economy, often at great cost to human lives and the environment.


Another mystery is the recent discovery of the body of a priest in Shanxi province, one of the most actively Catholic areas the country. The priest, Fr. Yu Heping, was found dead in the He River on November 8, 2015; he was on his way to teach a catechism class, but never arrived. Local Catholics suggest that Fr. Yu’s unregistered webpage, which had caught the attention of the government for providing up-to-date translations of Catholic news and documents published by the Vatican, might be the reason for his disappearance and death. Whether or not Yu’s death is connected to the authorities, it is known that his webpage was shut down by local officials and he was under scrutiny for helping operate an underground seminary in Shanxi, where the seminary had long been closed. At first the police announced that his death was a suicide, but after doubts were expressed by his family and fellow priests the authorities retracted their cause of death statement.

fr. yu heping (anthony clark collection)

Fr. Yu, who was only forty when he died, was the founder of the popular webpage Tianzhujiao Zaixian, or “Catholic Online,” which has been reopened and assigned to new direction, and is now much more state friendly. The webpage presently includes a report on Father Yu’s death with the headline, “Parish Priest, Father Yu Heping from Ningxia Diocese, Died an Accidental Death.” [8] Nothing of the local suspicions of state involvement or the state’s scrutiny of Fr. Yu’s activities is mentioned on the current webpage. The pope’s speeches and announcements are, however, still prominently available on the website. Fr. Yu’s funeral Mass was celebrated with great solemnity, and he has joined the ranks of Chinese bishops and priests who have died after a life of great sacrifice for the Church and souls in China.

Reparation and Rapprochement

The situation in China is far more complex than a simple chronicle of antagonism, suspicion, and persecution; progress and hope also punctuate the narrative. Not since before the inauguration of the People’s Republic of China have relations between the Vatican and Chinese government been better. While those relations are still imperfect—the selection of bishops is among the most bitterly unresolved topics—the Holy See has recently made successful overtures that would have been dismissed off hand several years ago. Pope Francis has played his cards well with China, and China is softening. After Francis’ election, the widely-read webpage, Vatican Insider, began including a news section entirely in Chinese, which demonstrates that the Holy Father’s eyes have turned toward the Catholics of China.

Even more significantly, the Vatican has so far conducted two rounds of deliberations with China’s authorities in Beijing to discuss how to improve relations with China. Rumors have even begun to spread that Rome is considering shifting its formal diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Mainland China, a possible move that has already attracted some criticisms from within the Church’s hierarchy. Overcoming decades of mistrust and irritation, on both sides, will require patience and consistent gestures of goodwill. Historically, China has cause to mistrust the West, and the Vatican resides in Italy, which did not always behave well in China during the concluding years of the nineteenth century. That meetings between the Holy See and China’s current government are being held at all is a sign of hope for most Chinese Catholics, but neither side is naïve.

In what was once the Jesuit mission at Xianxian, now the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jingxian, local Party authorities have donated enormous amounts of state funds to Catholic projects to make up for what had been lost during the last several decades. A beautiful old Jesuit church at Zhangzhuang, in Hebei province, was in ruins before the state provided the resources to restore the church and accompanying buildings. Today it is a beautiful Gothic Revival church with a Marian shrine, a sign of a hopeful future to the local Catholics who attend Mass there. The new cathedral at Jingxian, along with an impressive new bishop’s residence and Catholic history museum, was also funded by the local government, and walking through the halls of these new buildings one cannot miss the prominently displayed photographs of the pope and panoramas of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Even the Catholic tombs and mausoleums that were largely destroyed during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) are now being returned to the Church and restored to their former beauty, most notable is the Shanghai tomb of the famous Chinese Catholic convert, Xu Guangqi (1562-1633).

tomb of paul xu guangqi (anthony clark collection)

While Masses are being said for bishops and priests who have recently suffered under vestiges of state oppression, signs of reconciliation and hope have nourished the prayers of the faithful who continue to fill churches to capacity each Sunday. God is, it appears, hearing the entreaties of his Church in China, and the sacrifices previously made, and currently being made, today have convinced China’s Catholics that to be “partakers in the suffering,” as St. Peter wrote, is to help the Church emerge again from its long years of obscurity.

Matteo Ricci once wrote that, “The holy Church therefore has sacred water which it uses on those who enter its gates. Everyone who . . . who sincerely wants to turn away from his transgressions to do good and receive this sacred water, will receive love of the Lord of Heaven. . . . He will be like a newborn Child.” [9] During this Extraordinary Year of Mercy, these words by Ricci represent well what China’s Catholics hope for in future years, that mercy and reconciliation mark a new beginning of Catholic life in China.

Zhangzhuang Catholic Church (Anthony Clark Collection)


[1] Fr, Edward MacElroy, “God and the Atheists,” in . . . But Not Conquered, Ed. By Fr. Bernard T. Smyth (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1958), 59.

[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 39.

[3] See “Hong Kong bookseller mystery deepens after letter appears”, BBC News (accessed January 18, 2016).

[4] “China’s President Xi Jinping Say Religions Must Be Free from Foreign Influence”, Huffington Post Religion, May 20, 2015.

[5] See Robert Marquand’s “Xi Jinping state visit: China’s arrest of southern Christians intensifies”, The Christian Science Monitor, September 25, 2015.

[6] See UCANEWS, “Chinese Catholics Appeal for Release of Long-Imprisoned Bishop”, September 1, 2015.

[7] Winston Churchill, BBC Broadcast, “The Russian Enigma,” 1 October 1939.

[8] See www.chinacath.com (accessed 19 January 2016).

[9] Matteo Ricci, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven by Matteo Ricci, S.J., Trans. Douglas Lancashire, (St. Louis, MS: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1986), 455.

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About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 52 Articles
Anthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom.