China, politics, faith, and the liturgical village: Cardinal Joseph Zen in context

China’s Catholic culture has preserved Western devotional practices that one seldom sees in Catholic homes today in the U.S. and Europe.

Joseph Cardinal Zen prepares to offer the Traditional Latin Mass in Hong Kong. (Anthony E. Clark/Whitworth University Collection)

Editor’s note: During the week of May 28 to 31, 2019, several hundred Catholic lay faithful, priests, deacons, nuns, and three bishops gathered at Spokane, Washington, for the annual Sacred Liturgy Conference. The conference was sponsored and organized by the Schola Cantus Angelorum (SCA), a women’s Latin schola, formed in 2007 to respond to Pope Benedict XVI’s request for Roman Catholic liturgies celebrated with the splendor and solemnity of the traditional Gregorian chant. This year, His Eminence, Joseph Cardinal Zen, recorded a personal video greeting (see bottom of this article) to the participants in this gathering, and Dr. Anthony Clark was invited to provide remarks to contextualize Cardinal Zen’s important message on the present state of the Church and the sacred liturgy in China. Dr. Clark delivered the below remarks along with Zen’s recorded address.


Cardinal Joseph Zen is someone who has distinguished himself lately mostly as a courageous defender of two things: The integrity of the Church in China, and the integrity of the Catholic liturgy. These two things might seem unrelated to many, but my point here is to underscore how, in the context of China, ecclesial structure and the contours of liturgical worship are connected in a profound way. Also, I’ll place Cardinal Zen and his remarks into the unique context of Chinese Catholicism, which has occupied much of world news in recent years, especially in recent months in the wake of the Sino-Vatican agreement that has precipitated a great deal of concern. Liturgy is the main focus of this conference, so I’ll endeavor to connect China’s unique Catholic history with its particular approach to worship and prayer.

China’s singular Catholic identity is better understood when we consider how scholars study the evolution of languages and dialects. When languages evolve, they tend to change most in well-populated and well-connected urban centers. Remote villages that remain largely separated from interconnected cities tend to retain older forms of a given language or dialect. So, scholars love to conduct research in remote villages because they can hear older manifestations of languages that have not undergone the drastic changes that have occurred in large cities. Since China was very isolated from the rest of the Church during the sweeping transformations of the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath, the devotional and liturgical realities in China remained what I call a “liturgical village” until the 1990s. In fact, it was largely through the preservation of the pre-Conciliar liturgy that the Church in China strategically orchestrated its own survival under the post-1949 communist authorities, who demanded ecclesial independence from the Apostolic See, the Bishop of Rome, and the administrative decisions issuing from the Vatican.

Anti-Catholic Communist Rally in Shanghai, 1951 (Shanghai Municipal. Archives/Witworth University Collection)

Few national Churches define themselves more today as “committed to Christian unity through commitment to the pope” than the Chinese Church. My aim, then, is to address three areas connected to Cardinal Zen’s remarks on the Church in China and the sacred liturgy: First, the political context of Catholic Christianity in the People’s Republic of China; second, the liturgical life of the Chinese Church after 1949; and third, I’ll locate Cardinal Zen within this historical landscape. The Church in China has endured seven decades of challenges since its present government was established in 1949, and Cardinal Zen was seventeen when this era of Catholic struggle and resistance began. 1951 was a painful year for Roman Catholics in China – that is when a carefully planned campaign against the Church was initiated, and Shanghai was among the more intense locations of that movement. Anti-Catholic rallies and newspaper articles were used to turn the people against Catholics; Shanghai’s Catholics were continually beleaguered by state persecution during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. By 1949, the Chinese Communist Party had already begun to seriously repress China’s Catholic population. In a recently de-classified Party document held in the Shanghai Municipal Archives, we see this objective expressed by the government: “When the political struggle and the forces of production have reached a high rate in the stage of their power, then it will be possible for us to destroy the Catholic Church. This is what we aim to do, and it is for this objective that we struggle.” (Shanghai Municipal Archives, A22-1-233, “Guanyu Shanghai Tianzhujiao gongzuo de jieshao” 關於上海天主教工作的介紹.)

Bishop Paul Yu Bin, bishop of Nanjing, and Bishop Antonio Riberi, papal nuncio in Beijing. (Anthony E. Clark/Whitworth University & SAM Collection)

For its part, the Catholic Church had clearly established itself as the enemy of the Communist Party, so the Party had reason to suspect Catholics. In 1846, Pope Pius IX asserted that Communism, “is absolutely contrary to natural law itself, and if once adopted would utterly destroy the rights, liberty, property, and possessions of all people, and even society itself” (Qui Pluribus 1846). In his 1937 encyclical, Divini Redemptoris, Pope Pius XI called for “the militant leaders of Catholic Action” to assist the Church’s battle against the “snares of Communism” (Divini Redemptoris 1937). And the Chinese Church’s fevered resistance against Communism extended even into the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council, when the exiled bishop of Nanjing, Paul Yu Bin, delivered an animated speech entitled, “Mentioning Atheistic Communism by Name.” The bishop asked that “atheistic Communism” be mentioned specifically in the Council’s schema, “On the Church in the Modern World.” He called for the Council to officially assert that Communism is, “militant atheism, crass materialism – in a word, the sum of all heresies” (Third Session Council Speeches, October 23, 1964). Furthermore, in 1948 Bishop Antonio Riberi organized the Shengmujun, 聖母軍, Legion of Mary in China, into an elite organization of mostly Catholic youth who became anti-Communist activists. As a response, Mao’s new government targeted the Catholic Church as one of its most dangerous enemies.

The Catholic Church consolidated its efforts to oppose China’s new Communist government in two areas: First, by mobilizing China’s Catholic youth under the banner of the Legion of Mary. In the 1953 edition of The Official Handbook of the Legion of Mary, we find this passage: “The Legion of Mary is an Association of Catholics . . . [who] have formed themselves into a Legion for service in the warfare which is perpetually waged by the Church against the world and its evil powers” (pp 1-2). They defined themselves as an “army” – in close collaboration with the Church hierarchy. By 1950, China’s bishops and priests encouraged young Catholics to organize themselves within Marian sodalities and the Legion of Mary – these young Catholics were referred to simply as the “Catholic Youth.”

Second, the Church organized of high-profile public events to marshal the spiritual resolve of the faithful. These large-scale protests, mostly in Shanghai, were spearheaded by the now famous bishop, Gong Pinmei. By 1951, China’s new government knew about the Pope’s statements against Communism, the rise of the Legion of Mary in China, and the public events staged in Shanghai by Bishop Gong. The Party viewed this as an open battle between themselves and the Roman Catholic Church. China’s Party-sponsored media targeted its anger toward Bishop Gong, who the government felt carried too much influence. Articles and speeches connected Catholic missionaries to American imperialism, and depicted Catholic hierarchy as secret agents of imperialism and fascism. Nuns, who had cared for abandoned infant female babies and orphans, were villainized as “baby killers.”

Cartoon from the Shanghai Liberation Daily in 1951 depicting the eviction of Catholic missionaries and promoting an independent Chinese Catholic Church. (Peoples Liberation Daily, 1951).

One of the government’s most intense campaigns was a sustained anti-Catholic cartoon crusade. One example from Shanghai’s Liberation Daily promotes the new government’s alternative to affiliation with the Legion of Mary – the patriotic Catholic Association and the official “Three-Selfs Movement.” On this cartoon a patriotic priest who is racially Chinese – only racially Chinese clergy are legal in China today – is depicted holding a pamphlet with the Three-Selfs outlined: “Self-Govern, Self-Support, and Self-Propagation.” The ousted bishop is the Papal Nuncio, Bishop Riberi, holding the torn paper with the name, “Legion of Mary.” The government’s goal was to persuade China’s Catholics to renounce the pope and the Vatican authorities. The suffering of China’s Catholics during that time is exemplified in the moving example of what happened to Bishop Ignatius Gong Pinmei, who was the bishop of Shanghai when these cartoons were published. In 1954, Bishop Gong Pinmei, understood that China’s new government would move against the Catholic Church; it was a matter of time. He said that year: “If we renounce our faith, we will disappear and there will not be a resurrection. If we are faithful, we might still disappear, but there will be a resurrection.” The key to this assertion is that Bishop Gong – later Cardinal Gong – was recommending a form of resistance. And that’s what the Catholic Church did in 1950s China – it resisted.

Group photo in Shanghai of Bishop Ignatius Gong Pinmei and Chinese clergy and seminarians, taken shortly before Gong and many priests were arrested in 1955. (Anthony E. Clark/Whitworth University Collection)

Despite their opposition to the Party, on September 8, 1955, Bishop Gong Pinmei and several hundred priests and church leaders were arrested and imprisoned in Shanghai, Cardinal Zen’s native home. Catholic properties were seized by the local authorities, and China’s new red flag was raised above them to claim them for the government. Some of these Catholic buildings are still used as government offices in Shanghai. Bishop Gong was held in Shanghai’s Tilanqiao jail for five years before his trial, after which he was sentenced to life imprisonment for “counter-revolutionary” activities against the state. During his years of captivity, Gong was asked to denounce the Pope and join the Patriotic Association. Some sources state that all he had to do in order to be released was nod his head in agreement to the prison officials.

His legendary response was: “I am a Roman Catholic Bishop. If I denounce the Pope, not only would I not be a Bishop, I would not even be a Catholic. You can cut off my head, but you can never take away my loyalty.” Gong was secretly named a Cardinal in pectore (“in the heart”) by Pope John Paul II in 1979; the bishop was still living in his Shanghai prison cell when his promotion was made official at the Vatican. After he was released in 1986, Cardinal Gong Pinmei was kept under house arrest until 1988. He learned he was a cardinal during a private meeting with the Pope at the Vatican in 1988, and this was made public in 1991.

Many Chinese Catholics had to remain in China during the brutalities of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966-1976. Catholic churches were desecrated, destroyed, or seized by the government for secular use. During that time, Beijing’s Catholic churches were all emptied and reclaimed: North Church was used as a middle school; South Church was a processing factory; and West Church was a warehouse for Chinese herbs. In 1966, huge crowds of Red Guards attacked Catholic churches throughout China. For example, South Church/Cathedral, where Matteo Ricci once lived, was emptied of all its religious objects (statues, art, relics, tabernacle, and so forth), which were gathered near the church façade and burned before a large crowd of radicals. In one photo we see a banner suspended from the church roof that reads, “Long live Chairman Mao!” (毛主席萬歲), while onlookers assemble around a rising flame. And in another image, Red Guards smile and laugh as they destroy statues of Jesus and Mary with hammers and clubs; the figure of Christ crucified lays headless among the broken statues. Another photograph taken in front of Tianjin’s Xikai Cathedral, depicts images of Chairman Mao and anti-Catholic slogans pasted around the church’s front door. The tabernacle rests on the front steps as Red Guards burn and destroy sacred objects from the cathedral interior.

Throughout the era of Mao’s “Destroy the Four Olds” campaign, during the first year of the Cultural Revolution, China’s Catholics were targeted as “enemies of the people.” Priests and nuns were ordered to trample on crosses while nearby Red Guards shouted, “Down with God!” Lian Xi describes this era forcefully: “Throughout the country, church leaders were dragged into public ‘struggle meetings’ to be humiliated or beaten; countless were sent to ‘cowsheds’ (improvised places of confinement for the ‘ox demons’) and labor camps or driven to suicide or apostasy” (Lian Xi, Redeemed by Fire, 205). Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer have said that, “The Cultural Revolution produced the most thorough destruction of all forms of religious life in Chinese and, perhaps, human history” (Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer, The Religious Question in Modern China, 167). From 1950 to 1976, the Catholic Church in China was persecuted and oppressed, and from 1966 to 1980 it went into hiding. This is when the so-called “underground” community formed.

Portrait of Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, SJ, and a photo of Bishop Jin offering Mass in Shanghai during an ordination in the 1980s. (Anthony E. Clark/Whitworth University Collection)

So, where does the Catholic liturgy fit into this turbulent history? After 1949, the Communist government outlawed any connection between the Chinese Church and the Vatican, and mentioning the Pope’s name during Mass was forbidden. The Roman Liturgy became something of a “liturgical village” in China until the late 1980s; the pre-Conciliar Missal was in full use all over China and the formation of seminarians remained just as it had been in the 1950s until the New Rite of Mass was implemented in China in 1989.

Several factors are important to remember when studying the evolution of the Catholic liturgy in China during the Communist era. Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, SJ, the bishop of Shanghai who had been in Communist prison from 1955 to 1982, went to Beijing after his release to ask the authorities if the Pope’s name could again be included in the Mass. The government refused, so he mandated that only the 1962 Missal be used in China so that the Pope’s name could be mentioned during the Canon, since the Traditional Rite intones the Canon silently and unheard by those in the nave. Thus, the Traditional Latin Mass was in use in China until the Feast of St. Jerome in the traditional Roman calendar, September 30, 1989, when the authorities finally allowed the Pope to be mentioned in Masses and viewed as the “spiritual leader” of China’s Catholics, but not the temporal leader. That first New Rite Mass in Shanghai was offered by Fr. Joseph Zen, and the Mass text was translated into the Chinese vernacular by Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian.

Before I conclude these remarks, I would like to suggest that the liturgical traditions and history of China deserve much more attention than has been given. What I would call China’s “liturgical village” reaches long before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. For example, most Catholics, and even many professors who teach liturgy at seminaries and universities, might be surprised to hear that the Vatican had already approved a vernacular Chinese Roman Mass twice before 1950. The first approval was issued by Rome to use the Chinese translation of the 1670 Missale Romanum, completed by the Italian Jesuit, Father Ludovico Buglio, SJ. It took Buglio twenty-four years to complete his translation of the Roman Missal, a project that had been approved by Pope Paul V on March 26, 1615.

During the debates in Rome regarding whether China should be allowed to have a vernacular liturgy, the great theologian, St. Robert Bellarmine, SJ, wrote in 1538 that: “All Catholics acknowledge that the Sacrament is truly completed by whatever language is used, provided its sense is the same” (In Anthony Clark, China’s Christianity, 94). Bellarmine continued, using the examples of other Catholic vernacular liturgies such as those of the Armenians, Ruthenians, Maronites, and so forth, suggesting that no theological reasons hindered the celebration of Mass in Chinese. The second approval was granted by Pope Pius XII and the Holy Office on April 12, 1949. The decree of the Holy Office stated that all parts of the Mass may be in Chinese, except the “Canon, Pater Noster, Pax Domini, and Agnus Dei.” Due to the Rites Controversy during the seventeenth century and the Communist takeover of China in 1949, the vernacular was never implemented in China.

Architecture, vestments, and sacred objects have also been uniquely Chinese over the past 1,300 years of Catholic history in China. Churches have been erected in the Chinese style, chasubles have been made with Chinese silk and Chinese patterns, and China is the only national Church to design and implement its own unique style of liturgical hat, the so-called jijin 祭巾. This particular liturgical hat was worn by bishops, priests, and acolytes – all wore the same hat during Holy Mass – which caused surprise among many Western prelates when first arriving in China and asked to wear the same headwear as everyone else at the altar. China’s “liturgical village” had, and has, several other unique expressions.

During the elevation of the Host and Chalice, for example, China often ignited strings of firecrackers rather than ring bells, which was done in the rest of the world to summon the attention of the faithful toward the consecrated elements of the Eucharist. Newly-arrived missionaries in China often wrote letters home about how startled they were the first time they elevated the Host during Mass and suddenly heard the loud explosion of firecrackers nearby. And since it was considered an essential gesture of reverence for men to wear hats at important ceremonies, China was allowed by the Holy See to have men wear hats and women have exposed hair during the Eucharistic liturgy. In addition, while Gregorian chant was sometimes intoned during the Mass, liturgical music in China was unlike anywhere else in the world. The most common liturgical music in China has always been Buddhist in its tonality, and so both missionaries and Chinese faithful simply attached the text of Catholic hymns to the tones and rhythm of sutra chanting. Until the 1990s, most Chinese Masses were celebrated from start to finish while the entire congregation chanted Christian hymns with tonality that sounded exactly like Buddhist sutras – only during the Canon of Mass did the faithful remain quiet. These traits of the Chinese liturgy are known to some scholars, but they have not yet been formally examined in published works.

Chinese priest offering the Traditional Latin Mass at the Our Lady of Sheshan pilgrimage church near Shanghai, 2019. (Anthony E. Clark/Whitworth University Collection)

And finally, China’s Catholic culture has preserved Western devotional practices that one seldom sees in Catholic homes today in the U.S. and Europe. Devotion to the rosary, Sacred Heart of Jesus, and daily litanies, are still very common in China. So, what is the overall liturgical landscape in China at this moment? China has remained a “liturgical village” in many ways. Only some of those priests who received their formation in the U.S. or Western Europe show signs of being hostile to the Pre-Conciliar Rite of the Roman Mass. The Traditional Latin Mass is offered regularly all over China, and in increasing frequency.

Cardinal Joseph Zen has remained an active supporter of the Traditional Roman Liturgy as it was celebrated after the Council of Trent; as he says: “We should preserve this treasure of the Church.” He and several other Chinese priests have actively supported a large and growing group of young Chinese Catholics in Hong Kong who have formed a Latin Mass community. Because of bishops like Joseph Zen, and because China has remained a “liturgical village” through the post-Conciliar decades, the Chinese liturgy has remained in continuity with the liturgical patrimony of the Church’s long history, as Pope Benedict XVI has recommended. And China continues to rely upon the long sacramental and devotional traditions that have effectively nourished and sustained Catholics through terrible times of trial, as Chinese Catholics today still turn to the rich liturgical inheritance that has strengthened souls for two millennia.

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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.


  1. “If we are faithful, we might still disappear, but there will be a resurrection.” The key to this assertion is that Bishop Gong – later Cardinal Gong – was recommending a form of resistance. And that’s what the Catholic Church did in 1950s China – it resisted.

    Recently, Cardinal Joseph Zen, The Vatican, he said, “is giving “the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal.”

    For over thirty five years. I have carried a small yellow book, the “Thoughts of Jesus Christ”. It was issued by the Catholic Truth Society London in 1972 to combat Mao’s Little Red Book (Older readers will remember it) it presents no shallow fashionable image of him. It expresses his unique authority his clear ethic and good news of the kingdom, as it reveals Him God-man, the risen Lord, whose message is truly radial because it is supernatural…

    “Jesus Christ thought is the only message for an era in which human beings find themselves alone and purposeless”… The only information given is direction under different headings with Gospel reference. The simplicity of the book with minimal information impels the reader to contemplate the words of Jesus Christ in different life situations, this can be and is illuminating and encourages further study and spiritual growth, the onward transformation of the human heart…

    Quote “It is the most powerful ideological weapon for opposing oppression, misery, and inhumanity. Jesus Christ’s thought is the guiding principle for all of those who would follow him to perfect manhood. Therefore, the most fundamental task in our social political and ideological work is at all times to hold high the sign of the Cross, to arm the minds of the people throughout the world with it and PERSISTLY use it to command every field of activity”…

    The cover has long gone, like much of my old self, the remaining pages are yellowing and torn, some words can no longer be read but it is of no importance as there is no vacuum in my heart, as to some degree His Word now lives.

    To anyone who may consider reading The Little Yellow Book (if you can obtain one) note it is a tool for contemplation, as it contains the ‘living’, Word of God which is supernatural and radial, it cannot be misunderstood by anyone approaching his Word (Will) with honesty, it’s beauty (Truth) cannot help but inspire integrity, no matter of what religion, race, creed, state of being you are or belong to.
    Whatever happened to the little yellow book?

    But more importantly whatever happened to our God given ideals once propagated by the Church.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ.

      • Thank you Leslie for your informative comment, yes it appears that a few can be found online and that they are expensive.

        The Little Yellow Book ‘Thoughts of Jesus Christ’
        Laurence Soper O.S.B. & Peter J Elliot. M.A.
        Printed by Butler & Tanner Ltd. 1970

        I have contacted the Catholic Truth Society, by e-mail, if I receive a positive response I will post it here.
        kevin your brother
        In Christ

  2. An excellent piece, Dr. Clark and fascinating, especially to read and be reminded of the faithfulness of so many Chinese Catholics in the face of persecuation. More than that it was very informative to read about how liturgical and prayer practices supported and continue to support the faith of these Catholics. Thanks for writing.

  3. very good article. Very informative. I am a friend of Cardinal Kung’s nephew Joseph. You do have a error where you highlight the trials of Gong Pinmei. Unintended, you have the property of Cardinal Zen being confiscated when you meant Bishop Kung.

  4. Great article! I recently found out that Servant of God, Bishop Francis Xavier Ford was my first cousin. He was a Maryknoll Missionary and went to China in 1918 and was made Bishop of Kaying in 1935. He was tried for espionage in 1950 by the communists and sentenced to prison in Canton. He died a martyr’s death there in 1952 and his grave was ordered bulldozed. I was sad to not see any mention of him or the Maryknoll Missionaries in the article. However, its understandable. There’s no shortage of stories of suffering for the Faith in China. I pray that the blood of the martyrs in China will bring forth a strong resurgence of Faith that the rest of the world may witness and emulate.

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