Christmas and China at the end of 2022

The Sino-Vatican agreement has been praised for “normalizing” the situation of bishops in China, but for China’s Catholics in the pews this “normalization” has engendered more acrimony than accord.

“Christmas Procession in Northern China in 2019”. (Image: Whitworth University Library “China Christian Missions Collection”)

China’s Catholics have celebrated Christmas in Beijing since the first church was built there in 1299 by the Franciscan friar John of Montecorvino (1247-1348). Since that time the Church there has both enjoyed eras of acceptance and endured periods of persecution.

When I first lived in China during the 1990s, churches were largely closed to foreigners. In the year following I have witnessed an astonishing growth of Christianity within the Great Wall, and over the decades I have attended Holy Mass in most of China’s provinces and met many of its bishops, priests, sisters, and lay faithful. Sadly, China is now closed to visitors, and the only direct news I hear of the Church there is through emails from China’s clergy or from the Chinese relatives of Christians still living where the world used to call “behind the bamboo curtain.”

A quick internet search summons reports on the terrible treatment of Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong, the renewed and re-renewed agreements between the Holy See and China’s Communist government, and the pope’s recent announcement that Matteo Ricci is one step closer to canonization. But the internet cannot tell everything. As I write these remarks at the end of 2022, Beijing’s soaring cathedral is decorated for the Feast of the Nativity, the diminishing number of China’s seminarians are learning how to offer Christmas Mass, and Catholic parents are teaching their children the meaning of Christ’s birth, while those under eighteen are forbidden from attending services.

Christians in the People’s Republic of China are accustomed to the vicissitudes of political support and repression, and now as Christmas approaches they are preparing to Ba Yesu fang zai ying’er chuangshang (把耶穌放在嬰兒床上; “put Jesus in His crib”), despite being targeted and oppressed. In China’s more popular cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, churches remain open for the Holidays, while in many remote areas churches are forced to limit their celebrations to “more Chinese” events.

“Archbishop Paul Yu Bin (Archbiship of Nanjing) Meeting Pope John XXIII in 1959. (Image: Whitworth University Library “Société des Auxiliaires des Missions (SAM) Collection”)

Stable Instability

When Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed his Christmas Oratorio in 1734, he interposed the mostly festive composition with moments of solemn, one might say gloomy, lines from his other music for the Passion. Bach insisted that even as we celebrate the birth of the Savior, we must remember he was born for the Cross.

China’s Catholic history is much like Bach’s oratorio; times of joy are interrupted by harsh persecutions. One thing is certain in China, the only thing one can expect is the unexpected, even from the Vatican. Chinese Catholics often complain about the Holy See’s disconnection from the realities they face from day to day; these complaints are as old as the Rites Controversies of the eighteenth century, when Rome forbade the veneration of Confucius (551-479) and ancestors as “pagan rituals.”

During the third session of the Second Vatican Council, on 23 October 1964, the beleaguered archbishop of Nanjing, Paul Yu Bin (1901-1978), addressed the assembled prelates “in the name of more that seventy Council fathers,” pleading with them to “mention atheistic Communism by name” in the Council documents.i Given the extremity of China’s suffering under Communism, which Archbishop Yu had experienced himself, China’s Catholics expected the Council fathers to devote a considerable portion of Gaudium et Spes, the “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” to this global issue. China’s bishops were disheartened when Yu’s request for the Council to acknowledge that, “There is never absent, wherever Communism is in political control, a bloody, or at least legal, persecution or stifling of liberty,” was denied prominence in the Council’s discussions.ii

When Yu Bin’s entreaty was relegated to an insignificant footnote, note sixteen of Gaudium et Spes, it seemed to China’s bishops that China itself was relegated to an insignificant place in the Church’s consciousness.iii One still hears this complaint today in China as the Holy See appears to again ignore the recommendations of one of its bishops, Joseph Cardinal Zen, who is viewed by many as a present-day Yu Bin, speaking to the world about China’s suffering Church.

I have met many clergy in China, both from the “aboveground” and “underground” communities, and I cannot recall a single voice acclaiming the Sino-Vatican agreement first signed in 2018. It may be unpopular to say this, but there are some good reasons to support Pope Francis’ decision to sign the agreement. Keeping dialogue open is perhaps the most obvious one. But at the end of the day, the Holy See’s reasons in favor of an agreement, in my estimation, do not outweigh the reasons for rejecting accord with China’s duplicitous authorities. When the hand-shaking of leaders results in the continuing suffering of those whom they lead, it is time for the leaders to separate, for the good of their people.

Only one month before Christmas the Vatican expressed its disappointment that China’s government betrayed its side of the agreement by installing Bishop Giovanni Peng Weizhao as “auxiliary bishop of Jiangxi,” a diocese not recognized by the Holy See. Peng was secretly consecrated an “underground” bishop in 2014, but now that he has been absorbed into the new post-Sino-Vatican agreement situation as an “official” bishop, he has endured such pressure from the state that he recently promised to conform to government demands and “lead Catholicism to adapt to China’s Socialist society.” Bishop Peng, who was previously arrested for non-allegiance to the Party, is now criticized for non-allegiance to the Vatican.

The Sino-Vatican agreement has been praised for “normalizing” the situation of bishops in China, but for China’s Catholics in the pews this “normalization” has engendered more acrimony than accord.

“Group Photo with Bishop Giovanni Peng Weizhao (Sixth from the Left) in 2022”. (Image: Whitworth University Library “China Christian Missions Collection”)

A “Western Threat”—and hope from the West

One of the most evocative Chinese expressions for voicing personal suffering is chiku (吃苦, or “eating bitterness”). I used this term in the title of an article I wrote for my Catholic World Report column, “Clark on China,” a decade ago. Little has changed for China’s Catholics since then. While Advent wreaths illuminate the altars of some Chinese churches this year, many faithful wonder if the Church’s hallowed traditions, such as Advent wreaths, will soon be declared illegal by state authorities.

In March this year, Christians were banned from any internet activities unless first approved by the government, and thus most of the Church’s online presence has disappeared. Even more, Xi Jinping’s so-called “democratized” regulations of religious observance in China have reckoned that celebrating Christmas is a “Western threat” to China’s traditional culture. In December 2021, Xinhua News posted a report that presaged the situation for China’s Christians we see today.iv “Chinese President Xi Jinping has stressed upholding the principle of developing religions in the Chinese context,” the report states, continuing to assert that religious believers must “work together with the general public to develop China into a great modern Socialist country.”v

Here again is the recurring Party theme that Christians in China must conform to the “Chinese context,” and the “Chinese context” is “Socialist.” The progenitor of Communist China, Mao Zedong (1893-1976), was an avid reader of Karl Marx (1818-1883) who quipped that, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”vi In other words, to rid the world of Christianity is tantamount to liberating humanity from “the prison of religion,” a project that Xi sees as attached to China’s need to defend itself against Western influences. During an impassioned speech on 19 August 2013, Xi Jinping contended that, “Western countries see our country’s development and expansion as a challenge to their value views, systems and models, and intensify ideological and cultural infiltration of our country.”vii

Given Xi’s adamant support for Marxist Socialism and fear of outside cultural influences, it is no wonder that he views celebrating Christmas in China as a “Western threat.”

New regulations imposed on China’s Catholics warn that online postings cannot “provoke subversion of state authority, oppose the Communist Party, or undermine Socialism.” Xi’s Party officials insist that religious groups in China must avoid religious fanaticism, nor may they “persuade minors to convert to religion, organize them or compel them to participate in any religious activities.”viii If children are not allowed to be Christian, then, according to the Party’s logic, the future will not be Christian.

These new policies have placed enormous anxieties over the bishops and priests of China who are attempting to offer the traditional rites of the Church through this Christmas season. In some areas, such as Guangxi province, Christmas celebrations are deemed an aggression against Chinese culture, and citizens are encouraged to report Christmas religious gatherings to the police. The apparent accord expected from the 2018 Sino-Vatican Agreement, renewed in October 2020, has had no effect on the persistent persecution of China’s Christian population.

But while China’s churches navigate – again – turbulent waters, the Pope Francis’s recent announcement that Venerable Matteo Ricci, the “Father of the China Mission,” is progressing toward being recognized as a saint of the Church is a panacea for China’s Christians. China’s media has not yet revealed this development, but Hong Kong’s Catholic newspaper, the Sunday Examiner, has happily announced that, “During an audience on Saturday with Marcello Cardinal Semeraro, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, Pope Francis authorized the promulgation of Decrees concerning 10 servants of God who will soon be beatified, and fourteen holy men and women recognized as Servants of God, who will now be known as ‘Venerable,’ one of whom is the great missionary of accommodation in China, Father Ricci.ix

China’s Communist government has heralded Ricci as an icon of friendship between Asia and the West, but not for religious reasons. When the Shanghai intellectual, Gu Yulu, wrote of Matteo Ricci in his history of Catholicism in China, he emphasized that Ricci was accepted for three main reasons: 1) because Catholicism was effectively Sinicized; 2) because he befriended China’s elite classes; and 3) because he was of service to China’s political leaders. “Chinese agreed to be baptized,” Gu suggests, largely because of the “intellectual merits of what Catholics taught them.”x In other words, according to this Party-sanctioned version of Ricci’s life in China, his acceptance had less to do with religion than the intellectual contributions he made.

The Chinese Christians I know will delight in Ricci’s new status as Venerable, though I the government’s response to Pope Francis’ announcement will likely be less positive. For China’s Catholic’s, Father Matteo Ricci represents a “hope from the West” that Christianity may someday become normalized in China. For the Party he is lauded as an intellectual bridge, a scientific bridge, a cultural bridge, but positively not as one who helped plant Christianity in the Middle Kingdom.

When Catholics celebrate Christmas this year in the church established by Ricci in Beijing more than 400 years ago, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of Jesus, they will first walk past a large statue of the great missionary. In Ricci’s left hand he holds one of his writings, and his right hand is raised in a blessing. For China’s faithful, Christmas means the same thing it always has, the Feast during which humanity recalls the birth of their Redeemer, and Ricci is still remembered as one of the dauntless missionaries who risked all to share the message of that Redeemer.

In Matteo Ricci’s most famous work, his Tianzhu shiyi, “True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven,” he wrote what most of China’s Catholics imagine when they think of the man destined to be recognized as a saint:

The holy Church therefore has sacred water which it uses on those who enter its gates. Everyone who wants to follow this Way, who deeply repents his past wrongdoings, and 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, and will have all his former evil forgiven. He will be like a newborn Child.xi


i Paul Yu Bin, “Mentioning Atheistic Communism by Name,” Council intervention on 23 October 1964, in William K. Leahy and Anthony T. Massimini, Eds., Third Session Council Speeches of Vatican II (Glen Rock, NJ: Paulist Press, 1966), 158-159.

ii Yu, “Mentioning Atheistic Communism by Name,” 158.

iii See Gaudium et Spes, note 16, in Austin Flannery, OP, Ed., Vatican II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Collegeville, IN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 920.

iv “Xi Stresses Developing Religions in Chinese Context,” XinhuaNet, 4 December 2021. (

v “Xi Stresses Developing Religions in Chinese Context,” XinhuaNet, 4 December 2021.

vi Quoted in Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler, Eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2016), 163.

vii Xi Jinping, speech at the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference in Beijing, 19 August 2013. Quoted in Gilbert Rozman and Joseph Chinyong Liow, Eds., International Relations and Asia’s Southern Tier (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018), 292.

viii “Huilianwang zongjiao xinxi fuwu guanli banfa” 互联网宗教信息服务管理办法 [Administrative Regulations for Internet Religious Information Services], Implemented on 1 March 2022. See People’s Republic of China Central Government, 3 December 2021.

ix “Pope proclaims Matteo Ricci Venerable,” Sunday Examiner, 18 December 2022.

x Gu Yulu 顾裕禄, Zhongguo Tianzhujiao de guoqu he xianzai 中国天主教的过去和现在 [Chinese Catholicism Past and Present] (Shanghai 上海: Shanghai shehui kexueyuan chubanshe 上海社会科学院出版社, 1989), 179.

xi Matteo Ricci, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, translated by Douglas Lancashire (Hong Kong: Ricci Institute, 1985), 455.

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About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 54 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. Wonderful assessment from a man who appears to know the Chinese Christians far better, sadly, than those in Rome. May Matteo Ricci pray for those who are stumbling, in China and in Rome, for a way forward that does not betray the truth but honors all that ought be honored!

  2. A fine informative review by Dr Clark of the legacy of Fr Matteo Ricci from his own [despite his controversial cultural assimilation with China Clark shows that Ricci held fast to the essence of faith in Christ and the Church], and Chinese Catholic perspective and its juxtaposed CCP socialist reinvention under Xi Jinping.
    A parallel is the present Vatican administration’s softness in implementing Catholic moral, theological doctrine and its similarity in defense of Catholicism in China. Anthony Clark brings this dynamic to fore for the reader, his apparent thesis. Catholicism since 2013 has been channeled in the direction of identity with culture at the expense of a more vibrant, distinguishing identity in Christ. We find that weakness in Card Parolin’s papal sanctioned China policy.
    Card Zen, the prelate that represents the Christianity that Fr Ricci SJ, whose faith in Christ was a far cry from Jesuits today, except for the rare few, as well as the progressive prelates who dominate Vatican City.
    We’ve become appeasers, willing conformists with the alien spirit of the age rather than the spirit which calls men to shed their blood for Christ and the faith. Pews will continue to empty the Jesuits continue to decline because no one, no man who is a man finds any appeal whatsoever in this new brand of priesthood.
    Our hope seems the entry of converts who usually enter for what catholic Christianity actually stands for. Marcus Grodi interviews The Journey Home reveals that. They find appeal in the lovable infant Christ as well as the heroic martyr whose blooded body gives us the Holy Eucharist.

  3. Thank you, Dr. Clark. As you know better than most, there are many courageous Chinese who have not bought into the regime’s ideology that is actually a mask for “some (animals) are more equal than others.” The life of the Church is to be found in brave and faithful Catholics around the world, including China, rather than the ambiguous Vatican bureaucracy, though it pains me to say this.

  4. First Church 1299? The Apostle Thomas took the Gospel to China much earlier, with archeological remains. (Appears they had a period of doubt…)
    Source: Pierre Perrier

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