Catholic life in China looks pretty much the same a decade after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but I would say the fervor in the pews is more obvious and vibrant than I’ve witnessed in a long time. Pews are more crowded than the past, parish tables are stocked with more “Why you should be a Catholic” brochures than I’ve ever seen, and crowds of friendly, welcoming personnel suggest that China’s Church is on a mission to bring Christ to what has become an overwhelmingly secularized and materialistic society.
After Mass at Beijing’s famous St. Joseph’s church, in the center of the hurried Wangfujing shopping district, the priest leaned into the microphone and asserted: “God gives us many opportunities in life; none is more important and special than Holy Mass. Remember, faithful, this is not a movie theater – this is a church! You are in a holy place, so behave like holy people!” And clearly directed toward the swarms of young Chinese millennials in the pews, the aisles are occupied with banners bearing such messages as, “In ancient times, God spoke to His people many times and in many ways, but never by cell phone. Please put down your phone when entering the church.” During Holy Communion, the celebrating priest took great care to assure that everyone who approached him was a Catholic and understood the implication and responsibility of receiving Communion. Apathy is hard to find at China’s Catholic altars and in China’s pews; being Catholic in the Middle Kingdom is serious business.
After the final blessing, I chatted with a few Catholic women who were purchasing an image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to place in their homes for their daily family devotions. One woman looked at me and said, “We Chinese admire you Americans; you have faith in Christianity there! You Americans love Jesus, so we love you.” Noticing the amount of Chinese faithful around me buying holy objects for their homes, I could not help be respond to her, “No, it is I who admire you!”
I have always preferred attending Masses for local Chinese Catholics while I’m in China; this is where the faith is experienced most authentically. English Masses in China are not unlike most Masses in the United States: the same music, the same basic homilies, and usually filled with Americans, British, and Filipino Catholics who use hymns from Oregon Catholic Press. In order to better survey the Catholic landscape in China I visited four churches — one in a remote area of Shanxi province and three in China’s bustling capital, Beijing.
Anjia Street Catholic Church, Pingyao
While accompanying fourteen American students to the small, remote ancient town of Pingyao, in Shanxi province, I visited the historic Anjia Street Catholic church, which rests in a mostly non-Catholic area, and clearly survives with very little funding. There are small Catholic churches like this all over China, and they represent how the majority of China’s Catholics live their faith.
Entering the small church, one is greeted with a large photograph of the pope, and below the photo is an exhortation to “Study the Bible and transmit the Gospel.” And posted beside the church entrance is a sheet of paper asking, “What kind of Catholic are you?” with such questions as, “Do you take the faith with you when you leave the church?” and “Does my faith truly change how I treat people?” And, finally, like so many Chinese Catholic churches, there is a massive barrel of Holy Water near the altar where faithful collect blessed water for their homes.
Holy Savior North Church, Beijing
Among the highlights of this visit to China – during the north’s coldest month – has been a private tour of Beijing’s North Church, organized by Fr. Simon Zhu, the kind and enthusiastic vicar for external affairs for the Archdiocese of Beijing. Over the past several years, the Chinese authorities and local Catholics have funded the complete restoration and renovation of what will soon be Beijing’s cathedral again after nearly a century. Fr. Simon and Fr. Matthew, North Church’s pastor, walked me through the stunning construction project, which has already cost more that twenty-five million RMB, and is scheduled for completion during the summer of 2018.
Originally built in 1887 by the French bishop and architect, Alphonse Favier, North Church has suffered from several misfortunes. The façade was terrible damaged by Boxers in 1900, it was attacked with sledge hammers by Red Guards in 1966, and from 1966 until the early 1980s the church was closed to worship and used as a kitchen. Finally, enormous funds are being spent to restore and improve the church’s façade, stained glass windows, and interior. Some who think that the Chinese martyr saints canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000 are off limits in modern China will be surprised to learn that many of the newly-installed stained glass windows in North Church feature those saints in lively colors. And, two stained glass windows dedicated to Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II now reside in the cathedral’s restored sacristy.
St. Michael’s, Beijing
Walking through the old foreign legation area in Beijing, one eventually arrives at the Gothic French church named after St. Michael the Archangel.
St. Michael’s is a little-known church nestled among old Western-style buildings near the Forbidden City. It is a small church that functions as the spiritual home to a large Chinese Catholic community and a smaller group of Korean Catholics who live in the city. Small white boards on the church columns broadcast short aphorisms about how to be a good Christian, such as “Lord instruct in Your ways,” (上主，请指示我们祢的道路). As I passed the front door of this old French church, the huizhang (会长), “church elder,” welcomed me with the kind greeting, “You can always come here to our church.” Behind the church rests the rectory, where the priests live in a humble residence cushioned from the outside world by tall walls and a courtyard filled with trees and singing winter birds. St. Michael’s represents well China’s Catholic response to modernity – churches preserve solitude within the chaos of the world around them, providing a sanctuary wherein God’s voice is more easily heard.
St. Joseph’s Church, Beijing
St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Beijing’s most chic shopping area stands as a strong counter-narrative to the standard Western quip that Christianity is merely a persecuted and oppressed religion in contemporary China. This historic church is not only a state-protected monument in what could be another high-rise shopping mall; it is a celebrated emblem of religious devotion just a few blocks from the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square. Certainly, religion has suffered at points of Chinese history and still has its challenges, but Catholics attending Mass at St. Joseph’s do not talk of “state oppression” or even “state support.” They are too busy praying, buying rosaries images of the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart, and promoting the faith on tables by the roadside after Mass, to talk of such things.
Just an hour before writing these concluding lines I shared coffee with a Chinese Christian who was baptized just two-and-a-half years ago. I asked him, “Do find your freedom impeded here by state policies?” And he very quickly answered, “No. Anyone is free to believe and practice Christianity here. A few incidents may arise now and again, but what we really face here as a great challenge to Christianity is materialism. Everyone wants nothing more than to make money, but they don’t know that you can’t take that with you when you die.”
“Chinese people know at some level that there is a God,” he insisted, “but modern culture makes it difficult to accept that.” It’s not difficult to find news reports that emphasize the struggles of being a Catholic in China, but the view from the pews is less histrionic. China’s Catholics are praying their rosaries, raising their children, and attending Mass. Pews and malls are growing more crowded, and it is easy to see that more smiles occupy the pews . . . and fewer cell phones.