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Special Report: China

Chinese Catholics seek identity, role in turbulent times


In Chinese church after Chinese church I searched in vain for an Asian Jesus. What I found were Western icons, Caucasian faces. This was symbolic, I soon realized, of bigger paradoxes. Nothing in China was quite as it appeared to Western eyes.

On a warm November Sunday in Beijing, our group stepped into its first such incongruity: Immaculate Conception Cathedral, locally called South Church. Beyond a tree-studded courtyard we found not the Chinese architecture we might have expected but a neo-Gothic stone structure. It was, appropriately, the feast of All Saints, a further reminder of how bound together Catholics of all times and places are.

At 10 minutes before the hour, the church was already packed. This is one of only five Catholic churches in Beijing; 14 serve the diocese’s 40,000 Catholics. I estimated about 800 in the pews and aisles. From the rear, it looked like a sea of bobbing black and gray heads. The congregation was chanting in a monosyllabic, high-pitched tone. Most were kneeling, many with rosaries in their hands.

The paradox surrounded us on all sides. My eyes drifted up to portraits of European saints on the walls. Western icons are preferred by these Eastern Catholics, especially the older ones. The Western version of their faith is what they grew up with, clung to in the harshest of times when their priests were imprisoned or sent to labor camps, when their churches were closed, when they had nothing to cling to except, perhaps, an old holy picture or medal when they prayed late at night in their homes.

Our study tour was sponsored by the U.S. Catholic China Bureau, whose mission is to raise awareness among American Catholics about the church in China. Our group had 15 members, including my wife, Hoa, and myself. We had a lot to learn. Theresa Yeung, who had joined us in Hong Kong, added another wrinkle to the paradox. Were Eastern icons introduced into China’s churches today, she explained, most older Catholics would reject them, presuming the move was made under government duress.

Beijing has allowed more room for religious expression in recent years but still wants Chinese Catholics to be cut off from the universal church, especially from the pope. Chinese bishops are not supposed to have contact with Rome. The price of breaking the law in this regard could be severe, not only for the bishop but for his people.

Thus, for these South Church Catholics, the Jesus and saints of Europe are, deep down, not only familiar but protectors of sorts -- even, one might imagine, subtle faces of resistance.

In yet another cultural twist, I was told that Eastern icons almost certainly will be introduced in the years ahead because young Chinese artists are now studying in the United States and will presumably return eager to create authentic Chinese art.

That Eastern students should go West to inculturate Asia might sound ironic, but it was only a ripple in that sea of contradictions that is China. Another ripple is that China, so long isolationist and xenophobic, is now looking outward for help. And yet another is that the Chinese really do respect Western development ideas. After only hours in Beijing, I was discarding some old preconceptions.

For more than two weeks, as we crossed China from Beijing in the north through Xi’an in the center to Guilin in the south, and back to Nanjing and Shanghai along the coast, I tried to keep an open mind. I also continued my search for an Eastern Jesus.

Never did I find one until the day before we departed. In the residence of Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai I spotted a tapestry into which was woven an Eastern Madonna and Child. “But most Catholics don’t like it,” an aide to Jin told us.
By then we understood.

Familiar liturgy

We had arrived at South Church during the final minutes of a benediction service. Several priests were at the altar. One held a monstrance as he formed the sign of the cross, a gesture many of us grew up with but have seldom experienced in the post-Vatican II church. Incense filled the cathedral. At the back were several old priests who seemed to be in their 80s. One had been hearing confessions, sitting behind a wooden board.

There was a striking division between young and old worshipers, under 30 or over 60.

The chief celebrant was Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan of Beijing. The liturgy followed Vatican II norms. Yet I was surprised to see women lectors who approached the altar wearing white surplices over red cassocks. Despite the many rosaries, some worshipers followed along. The choir sang enthusiastically, led by an animated young priest in his late 20s, dressed in black suit and Roman collar. Later, this priest handed me his card: “Fr. Francis Xavier Zhang, bishop’s secretary for overseas friendship.” His face at times looked almost sublime as he led his choir.

Before Communion, a mitered Bishop Fu conferred the minor orders of lector and acolyte on no fewer than 21 young seminarians, all in their early 20s.

Though the liturgy was familiar, the words were foreign -- until Holy Communion when the choir embarked on “Amazing Grace.” After several verses in Chinese, Zhang sang a solo verse in English, his way of welcoming us. Several in our group later described how moved they were. Through liturgy, some Eastern and Western souls had touched. It would not be the last time.

Relationships a priority

After Mass, we were invited to meet Bishop Fu at the first of many receptions with bishops, priests and lay leaders. All followed a similar format. We sat on chairs arranged in a rectangle and facing inward. Small tables formed another, inner square. The head of our “delegation,” usually Maryknoll Sr. Janet Carroll, the China Bureau’s executive director and organizer of the trip, would sit up front next to our host. Aides would then appear and fill small cups or glasses with tea. They placed dishes of fruits, usually bananas or tangerines, on the tables and invited us to drink and eat.

The host would speak, then answer questions. Such sessions were always cordial and not very informative. Not that the Chinese are evasive, but rituals are obligatory and build relationships, a Chinese priority.

We met privately with various Catholic leaders but soon understood these were public events. Our hosts allowed plenty of so-called “aides” to sit in. Among these, we learned, were some who could report suspicious activities to government officials. What better way to avoid suspicion than to open meetings to informants?

Church and government in China have ritualized their own ties. The forced marriage pleases neither, but neither can opt out. How these forces get along depends a lot on local circumstance, and this in turn on local personalities. Catholics in the South and some of the northeast provinces experience more freedom than others closer to Beijing.

Rules can be broken or bent if you know the right people. Some call it corruption; others call it the Asian way. As one source explained it: If both parties agree, then laws can be overlooked. “There’s a kind of I know you know I know attitude, but let’s agree not to talk about it,” said Carroll.

Terror no more

This Chinese approach has led some priests with a pastoral focus to decide they get more of what they want if they compromise and try to get along. Meanwhile, it has been precisely the willingness to compromise and work within the system that has offended other Catholics who strenuously hold that to compromise on matters of religion is to sell your soul.

In China, the gulf between Catholic pragmatists and Catholic idealists is virtually unbridgeable.

Many Chinese, including Catholics, agreed they have greater freedom of expression than they did a decade or more ago. As one young man sarcastically put it, China has moved from being a totalitarian nation to being an authoritarian one. Yet he agreed this is a substantial step forward. On the surface, Catholics worship freely. But appearances are deceptive. Churches operate with many restrictions. No foreign missionaries are allowed. Catholics must register and are ineligible for Communist Party membership (meaning social advancement). Churches are built only with government approval. No private Catholic schools are allowed. No official contact with the Vatican is allowed.

Life may not be easy, but it lacks the stark terror Catholics experienced in the 1960s and ’70s when bishops, nuns, priests and lay leaders were imprisoned or ridiculed or both. Today, Catholic leaders can still be arrested for breaking the rules, but detainment, not long-term imprisonment, is more often the punishment.

Bishop Fu, a typically tall Northern Chinese, has been the focus of much controversy. Consecrated bishop of Beijing in 1979, he is also chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which links the government and church. Fu is viewed as a politician, which hurts his image in the eyes of some Catholics. During the Cultural Revolution, Fu came under heavy attack as did other priests. And, like other priests at the time, it is said he compromised by getting married. Years later, this cloud still hangs over his head. Chinese Catholics never warmed to the marriages, forced or not, of their priests. The marriages, it turns out, were a cunning communist ploy that divided Catholics and left them dispirited.

Rebirth in 1979

Fu was friendly to us and searched for ways to reach out. He recalled visiting Maryknoll’s New York headquarters many years ago. We wanted to connect as well. Sister of St. Joseph Catherine McNamee recalled visiting China in 1981 as a member of the first U.S. Catholic college presidents’ delegation to China. Back then, only a few people gathered in the church on a Sunday morning, the Mass then was still in Latin, the priest kept his back to the people and worshipers were all elderly.

The bishop offered statistics pointing to the fact that the Chinese church is alive and growing. There are now 115 dioceses. In the past 20 years, the church has welcomed 1,056 new priests and 3,000 new nuns. Catholicism in China has kept pace with population growth, a remarkable thing in a church that has been oppressed for the past half century. Several sources placed the total number of Catholics in China at somewhere between 10 and 12 million, or about three times more than when the communists gained control in 1949. Protestant figures were usually slightly higher, meaning that approximately 1 percent of China is Christian today.

But Catholic growth brings many new challenges. At the top of their list of priorities, Fu and others put better formation of priests and nuns.

For more than 30 years the church saw no new ordinations. Only in 1979 was Catholicism allowed to revive itself. So, with virtually no priests or nuns between ages 30 and 70, healthy religious formation in seminaries and convents has become the highest priority.

Throughout our 17-day visit, we sought out young seminarians and candidates for religious life. We found them eager to serve the church. They studied in buildings that can at best be described as rudimentary. They have access to few books, get by on little food, live in crowded dormitories with little or no hot water. But they are always enthusiastic.

We never found out why they were choosing to be priests and religious. But we sensed a burning desire to belong to community and to something larger. We heard much talk in post-Marxist China about the search for meaning among the young.

In each seminary our group was welcomed warmly. We saw in these young Catholics a longing to be tied to the universal church. Making connections became critically important to us, too.

Generation gap

Because our group spoke little Chinese and they spoke little English, we connected at times by singing hymns in Latin. The “Salve Regina” and “Pater Noster” served this purpose well.

We witnessed their meager libraries containing many of the Catholic books from the 1950s and 1960s, throwaways back home but sacred treasures in China. Chinese Catholicism, I concluded at one point, will enter the future more by the power of faith than theology. But will this be enough?

There is no shortage of candidates for the priesthood in China. Local, regional and national seminaries are full. One of our group, Fr. Michael Farano, director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Albany, exclaimed as he walked into a packed seminary hall in Xi’an: “I haven’t seen this many seminarians in one place since I was 17 years old.”

But the problem is inadequate religious formation. The vice rector in charge of the Shanghai seminary is a 28-year-old priest.

Officially, there are some 1,600 seminarians and 1,500 women in various stages of formation in China today. But this does not take account of those seeking religious paths outside official, government-sponsored institutions. We heard that the “underground church” is training another 800 seminarians and 1,000 young women for religious communities.

The National Seminary in Beijing houses 44 students. We were met at the front gate by Bishop Joseph Liu Yuanren, an unassuming man dressed in an old gray suit and open collar. He was recently elected president of the Chinese Bishops’ Conference, a leader who may not have been the bishops’ own choice but was acceptable to the Beijing government. He gave us a tour and told us 1,070 new priests have been ordained for the open, or official, church since 1982. This included, he noted proudly, more than 80 from the National Seminary.

The age of Chinese church leaders is a concern. Generally over 80 and a declining minority, elderly bishops still set policy. Their passing will cause radical changes, lowering the leadership age by some 30 to 40 years. Generation gaps are difficult enough, but a two-generation jump will have monumental consequences. When a younger generation of church leaders comes to power sometime soon, Catholicism will spring forward with a vengeance into some unprecedented future.

The national seminary is a single cement building. Unlike other seminaries, it is located inside the city. It looked like a run-down boarding school. Liu eagerly unveiled for us a miniature model of the new national seminary to be built in the next five years with government and foreign funds. Catholic seminaries, like other schools, receive modest government stipends for each student. Given the modest means of most Chinese Catholics, any substantial building in the near future will require foreign assistance.

To upgrade the education standards, China’s bishops have been sending seminarians abroad: some to Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines, others to Europe and 50 to the United States since 1992. About half of those who studied abroad have already returned to China.

However, transitions have not been easy. We heard stories of some who returned with fresh ideas only to be shut out by their bishops -- and sometimes even by their peers. “Try again in 10 more years,” one bishop told a returning student. “By that time I will be dead.”

Good potential leaders appear caught in limbo. We heard stories of stellar leadership candidates, who, after studying abroad and being rejected back home, simply jumped ship. More care needs to be given to the difficulties of crossing cultures. Going overseas for training -- which many Chinese church observers support -- has slowed to a trickle. The passport application process has tightened up. The United States, meanwhile, has cracked down on admitting Chinese, fearing they will not go home.

Formation challenge

There is an enormous shortage of books on contemporary theology and liturgy. Nevertheless, channels are slowly opening. Many Chinese educators told us that they can now receive such books from overseas and are eager to do so. Meanwhile, without copying machines, seminary chalk boards take on great importance.

It was getting dark when we finished our visit to the National Seminary. Liu walked us down a narrow street to a nearby restaurant where we dined and he answered questions. Many seminarians are coming from rural areas, he said, and lack proper study habits. To combat this, he planned to borrow disciplinary ideas from the Chinese army.

We came away with positive impressions of the students, who were prayerful and attentive. A Chinese Catholic woman who has studied in the United States said that seminarians are generally sensitive young men but once they become priests they become demanding and autocratic. Hierarchy and status are alive in China.

The Chinese government forbids Catholic schools. It does, however, encourage medical and social work. Growing numbers of young Catholic nuns are responding, providing one of the more hopeful initiatives in government and church cooperation. Catholic evangelization, meanwhile, is usually forbidden outside parishes. Foreign proselytizing is strictly outlawed. Religious training takes place only inside the church. All this has limited the roles many women religious play. Some have complained that simply doing housework for the clergy is not enough.

In Shanghai, perhaps the most progressive diocese, women religious are diocesan administrators. In other locations, they do pastoral and medical work.

Women interested in religious life begin with a lengthy period of candidacy during which their religious and education backgrounds are assessed. Their first temporary vows follow a two-year novitiate. These vows are renewed annually for five consecutive years before final vows.

Asia was not new to me. I lived there in the 1960s, married there in the 1970s, went back to visit in the 1980s -- but had never visited mainland China. For my Vietnamese wife, Hoa, the trip had an added significance. Every young Vietnamese learns that Chinese soldiers occupied Vietnam for a thousand years, that two courageous women, the Trung sisters, led an insurrection to drive them out. Each time the Chinese returned, other Vietnamese would again drive them out. This pattern of occupation and resistance molded the Vietnamese psyche and formed its nationalism. Had U.S. policymakers paid attention to culture, the Vietnam War could have been avoided.

I decided to pay special attention to both history and culture. For Hoa, meanwhile, the experience would mean facing her old “enemy” up close. It turned out that the exposure not only helped her to shed old stereotypes but also allowed her to see the neighbors of the nation of her birth anew, through the lens of faith, as another part of the family of God. We were all to benefit.

China tells a 5,000-year-old story. In every city we saw monuments and artifacts hundreds or often thousands of years old. The Great Wall was built 220 years before Christ. We walked through the Heavenly Temple and the Forbidden City in Beijing where emperors offered prayers to the God of Heaven for centuries. We went to the tombs of 17th-century Catholic missionaries, saw Christian crosses etched on Nestorian tablets 1,300 years old. Each day our awe grew.

Meanwhile, we began to come alive as a temporary small faith community, adjusting to and enjoying each other. Even in such a small group differences surfaced, especially with regard to feminist and clerical issues. Occasionally at day’s end we crowded into a hotel room to share thoughts and the Eucharist. Such Masses had a catacomb feel to them. The theme “standing on holy ground” emerged as group members sensed the awesomeness of history and the persistence, even unto death, of Christian commitment. This was no longer casual tourism; it had become a faith journey.

Unparalleled upheavals

China has endured unparalleled upheavals throughout the 20th century: the end of imperial rule, the founding of a republic, civil war, occupation, colonial resistance, communism, Cultural Revolution and, most recently, a state-directed capitalist economy. Older Chinese have lived through almost continual change. They have regularly experienced famine and terror. To a younger Chinese, it means that nothing is permanent.

I tried to read and learn as much as I could. I began to understand the significance of traditional Confucian thought and its hierarchical world-view. Emperors ruled with absolute authority for thousands of years. China has little or no experience of political or social pluralism. The emperor’s will was always law.

Soon I wondered what, if anything, had changed. Today the Beijing government controls newspapers, television, the economy, even family life with the government’s one-child-per-couple rule. As wide as the United States, China has one time zone, Beijing time. On the surface, people have the right to do as they please. As long as they don’t buck authority.

It is government policy to welcome foreigners. Everywhere we went, people were cordial. Foreigners are seldom the victims of petty or violent crimes.

I found my anger toward Chinese government officials growing simultaneously with my respect for them. On the one hand, they insisted on controlling every aspect of Chinese life; on the other, they showed great pride in providing for their people, especially economic opportunities and social stability. At times, I viewed Beijing’s leaders as heavy-handed thugs without care for human rights. At other times I had to acknowledge their post-colonial pride, built upon a rejection of 19th-century human rights abuses committed by Westerners.

The Chinese are still emerging from colonialism. Hong Kong was returned a little more than a year ago; Macao will come under Chinese control this year.

Suffering people

Each day brought its share of stories, often of unimaginable suffering. Chinese Catholics seldom freely volunteered to speak about their pain, and we always felt ambivalent about invading this privacy. We never heard bitterness about the past, only talk of the day. Maybe that’s what it takes to maintain hope.

Places as well as people spoke to us. Beijing’s South Church is a fascinating example. It traces its origins to a chapel built in 1605 by Matteo Ricci, the esteemed Italian Jesuit missioner. In 1610 the chapel was replaced by a church and became known as the Hall of the Lord of Heaven. Smart missionaries had sought favor with the court. The church compound housed a conservatory and library, temptations to be placed before the royal family.

In 1775, two earthquakes and a fire destroyed the church, but an emperor donated 20,000 pieces of silver to have it rebuilt. In 1900, the church was burned to the ground during the Boxer Rebellion, a peasant-led revolt against foreigners. In 1904, it was rebuilt again, only to be closed in “purifications” during the Cultural Revolution, when it became a shoe factory. Reopened as a church for foreigners and local diplomats in 1971, it became a place of worship for local Chinese in 1979.

The ebb and flow of fear and fortune in Chinese history contain their own lessons. The very stones of South Church speak of China’s precarious social order. Over the centuries the stability of Christian life, like all else in China, has depended on the will of the “emperor” of the moment. Today that emperor is Beijing.

The longer we were there, the more I became aware of the sad internal divisions that plague China’s Catholics.

Divided Catholicism

A 1997 white paper is the most recent official government statement on religion. Many critics dismissed the paper as propaganda but admitted it revealed insights into government thinking. Not surprisingly, the paper reaffirmed religious freedom. It also dredged up old accusations that Christian missionaries collaborated with imperialist forces throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. While in many instances this charge is true, it is also a simplification used by Chinese authorities to justify keeping Catholics cut off from the universal church.

Thus the paper spoke glowingly of the “independent autonomous self-management” of today’s church, meaning the official church. By “self-management” it referred to the fact that since April 13, 1958, Chinese bishops have been appointed without Vatican approval.

To understand Chinese Catholicism’s divisions, one needs to recall the early 1950s when the Communist Party solidified its control by aligning itself with majorities within groups while singling out isolated “enemies” in their midst. After purging a “principal enemy” it would find a new “principal enemy.” In the Catholic church context, the communists at first attacked foreign bishops and missionaries, then “unpatriotic” Chinese bishops and priests, and finally lay leaders. With each move, it further divided Catholics and sowed greater suspicion.

The approach worked brilliantly, soon forging two camps: those who accommodated with the regime and those who refused. The former began to operate as the official, government-sanctioned church; the latter went underground.

This policy of divide and conquer found as a vehicle the “three-self” movement, which began in 1950 when a Chinese priest published a declaration in which he proposed a total break with all imperialistic powers and a church that would be “self-administering, self-supporting and self-propagating.”

This, in turn, gave birth to the “Three-self Patriotic Movement” and led to the formation, in 1957, of the “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.” It would be the governing vehicle for the official church in the decades that followed. The communists had succeeded in turning Catholic against Catholic. In a brutal twist, even those Catholics who chose to “cooperate” with the government in the 1950s eventually ended up in prison and labor camps in the 1960s during a second wave of oppression in the Cultural Revolution.

I concluded at one point that the decades-long feud among China’s Catholics is between those who spent 10 years in prison for their faith and those who spent 20 years in prison for the same faith.

China was completely closed to outside contact during the 1950s and ’60s. The mid-1960s were especially crucial, when the world’s bishops met in Rome for the Second Vatican Council. Anthony S.K. Lam, executive secretary of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, points out that while the bishops in Rome were developing the theology of the local church during the council, Chinese Catholics were already implementing it, that is, learning to live entirely on their local resources.

After a decade of horror and the death of Mao, Catholicism in China began to rise from the ashes. To many it looked like the old church, but it had been purified, Lam writes, “emerging from the fires of persecution and very conscious of its own identity.”

During the 1980s and ’90s, the severity of punishment for “unpatriotic” behavior significantly diminished. But many Catholics -- some say up to half -- continue to worship clandestinely in their homes rather than cooperate with so-called government “collaborators.” Many underground Catholics continue to be harassed by government authorities. Some still go to jail for practicing their faith.

Beijing maintains it would be willing to improve relations with the Vatican, reiterating two preconditions: that Rome sever ties with Taiwan and not interfere in China’s internal affairs. It holds that any Vatican appointment of Catholic bishops constitutes meddling. Vatican defenders reply that such appointments are a religious, not a political, matter. These critics argue that Rome has diplomatic relations with more than 100 countries, and none regards papal appointments as interference in a nation’s internal affairs.

China regards the pope as the head of the Vatican state before being a religious leader. So it has stressed the need to resolve Sino-Vatican diplomatic relations before entering into further negotiations on the Sino-Vatican church relationship. The Vatican, however, places religious relations first.

We encountered hundreds of Catholics, a half dozen bishops, various aides and other well-informed Chinese, and others. While our formal contacts were limited to the open church, we also spoke to Catholics with ties to the underground church.

Most foreigners, constrained by the circumstances in China today, gain only secondhand knowledge of church conditions. Its tangled web was brought home to me during the Asian synod in Rome last April. “Greater China” was represented by six bishops, including Bishop John Tong of Hong Kong; other prelates were from Taiwan and Macao; mainland Chinese bishops were notably missing. So Pope John Paul issued an invitation to then 90-year-old Bishop Duan Yinming of Wanxian diocese in China and his coadjutor Bishop Joseph Xu Zhixuan. Within days Beijing denied the men permission to travel to Rome, citing “lack of diplomatic relations.” The Duan invitation was viewed as a smart diplomatic move because the ailing bishop had been appointed by Pope Pius XII and has worked as part of the official church.

In a Rome talk Tong explained how China’s Catholics became so divided. It is first necessary, he said, to understand the national patriotic sentiment that brought the communists to power on Oct. 1, 1949. “The Chinese people have finally stood up!” Tong quoted Mao Zedong saying that day. Everything foreign was quickly purged -- and in 1949 foreign bishops were still in charge of 120 of 140 existing dioceses or apostolic prefectures. Tong praised the work of missionaries in China but said they had been “remiss” in not turning more of the leadership over to local Chinese before the communist takeover. It was a costly mistake for the church.

Illicit ordinations

He spoke of the formation of the government-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 1957, the first illicit ordinations of two Chinese bishops without Rome’s approval in 1958, 52 such ordinations in all by 1962. He called these “good and intelligent” men, said some were forced to marry under political pressure but that their marriages were never accepted by Chinese Catholics.

He spoke of the unfathomable hardships of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 and how virtually all Catholic leaders, members of the open church included, ended up in prison camps. (It is estimated that some 30 million Chinese died as a result of the “great leap forward.”) Tong spoke about the new beginnings in the late 1970s and the subsequent elevation of 81 more priests to the rank of bishop without Rome’s approval. One of these was Bishop Fu, consecrated bishop of Beijing in 1979. These new bishops, Tong said, were “motivated by pastoral concern.” We must affirm, he insisted, that their problems are not matters of faith, but rather of law.

Tong spoke of the underground church and how its bishops began consecrating more bishops who recognized Rome. Bishop Fan Xueyan of Baoding diocese, who died in 1992, consecrated three bishops as soon as he was released from prison following the Cultural Revolution. Only afterward did he tell Rome. The pope in turn legitimated Fan Xueyan’s appointments and granted them special faculties to consecrate successors as well. They were also given authority to ordain priests as bishops in neighboring dioceses when the need arose.

Tong said these actions led to the indiscriminate ordination of underground bishops. Today there are as many as 50 bishops who have been consecrated secretly. Some dioceses have as many as three bishop ordinaries. Tong called these “men of strong faith,” adding that many “have not received adequate training.”

Underground bishops have established their own seminaries, sometimes meeting in rural homes. In 1990, when a rumor circulated that the Vatican was on the verge of establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing, Tong said, some underground bishops, fearing that they would be overlooked, called a secret meeting to set up their own episcopal conference. The open church had set up its episcopal conference in 1980. So now there are two.

Although underground Catholics remain faithful and loyal, Tong added, their isolation has fostered a “closed mentality” where rumors flourish and misinformation leads to further divisions and separations. “The hardening of conflicting positions results in serious obstacles to eventual unity within the whole church,” he said.

Many Catholics in the underground church, Tong noted, play a prophetic role by refusing to participate in a government-sanctioned organization. They challenge government policy regarding human rights and religious freedom from a Catholic standpoint. At the same time, many Catholics in the official church play a more priestly role, working within the system to minister to the spiritual and sacramental needs of Catholics.

‘Please don’t take sides’

Tong was evenhanded and referred to the situation as “complex.” In some locations, bishops in the open and underground churches have reconciled and now cooperate. In others, bitterness and rivalry are the norm. Most underground priests refuse to set foot in the open churches, yet are often protected, fed and clothed by members of these churches. When asked what outsiders might do to help, Tong recommended, “Pray for us.” We heard the same response to the same question wherever we went in China. The answer had as its implication “Please don’t take sides or you will make matters worse.”

I learned of priests and lay leaders in the underground church who have continued to resist and have continued to be arrested, especially in rural areas. Churches built without government approval remain potential targets. In many areas, to avoid police detection, Catholics gather for Mass in private homes. Every few months reports surface of harassment and arrest of such Catholics.

In March 1998, for example, Amnesty International reported that about 200 Catholics were detained in the eastern province of Jian Xi for up to three months in late 1997. A frequent chronicler of church persecution is the U.S.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, which has contacts with the underground church, especially in the Shanghai region.

While any religious harassment is outrageous, there is irony in the Catholic situation. Some in the underground church, acting out of loyalty to the pope, appear to let personal fervor blind them to repeated papal pleas for reconciliation. This unwillingness to follow the pope’s lead reportedly has been justified with statements such as “the Holy Father simply does not understand.”

Meanwhile, adding to the irony, by far the greater majority of bishops in the official church, those bishops who were appointed without Rome’s permission, have quietly been reconciled with Rome. These ordinations are now considered both valid and licit.

For its part, Beijing has softened its stance in recent years. In February 1989 it began permitting Chinese Catholics to acknowledge the pope as their spiritual leader. So Chinese Catholics now pray for him at Mass. In Shanghai, a prayer for the Holy Father after Mass lasted several minutes. Yet Catholic bishops cannot have any official dealings with the Vatican.

In August 1997, Archbishop Claudio Celli, the papal delegate who handles relations between the Holy See and the Chinese government, passed through Beijing, according to Tong, holding brief discussions with the Chinese Foreign Ministry about allowing local appointments of bishops -- provided the pope had the final say. Apparently, the idea was not rejected outright.

Mao’s shadow

There is no commercial center in Beijing, at least none I could find on my tourist map. The capital city seems to have spread over the years, a bit like Greater Los Angeles. Beijing, on the other hand, has a very distinct cultural center, the Forbidden City. It was built along a north-south axis. Directly south of the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square, said to be the largest plaza in the world, capable of holding 500,000, albeit very tightly. The familiar color portrait of Mao hangs over the plaza and is cut off from it by the broad Avenue of Eternal Peace. I had seen images of Tiananmen Square in news photographs and on television for years, but was nevertheless unprepared for the enormity of it all. The Great Hall of the People, which sits at the southern end of Tiananmen Square, has become the new power center of China. Its proximity to the Forbidden City did not seem to me to be an accident.

The Temple of Heaven, south of the Forbidden City, sits in a huge park and looks like a massive stone stage with a gigantic imperial altar. The afternoon we visited, it had no feeling of the sacred. This was “Chuppie” territory now, our guide explained. Chuppies are Chinese yuppies, the guide went on, with cell phones, electronic notebooks and cars. They speak colloquial American English. Chuppism appears to dwarf most religious instincts, at least on the surface, among the young in China.

At the same time, old ways seem to linger within and shape much of the Chinese psyche, which seeks harmony and stability. Four centuries back, missionaries to China understood this and attempted to “baptize” the nation by moving Catholic belief into the higher reaches of the Confucian hierarchy, the royal court.

Former Maryknoller and sociologist Richard Madsen tells the story in his book, China’s Catholics (University of California Press). He points out that while there had been two earlier waves of missionary activity -- the first in the seventh century, when Nestorian Christians came to the western frontier, and the second in the 13th century, when Franciscans entered China -- the late 16th-century wave was by far the most important. It was then that Italian Jesuits, led by Matteo Ricci, gained influence with the political and intellectual elites of the Ming dynasty. They did this precisely by accommodating Catholic teaching to the ideology of state Confucianism.

In effect, they said Catholicism was consistent with ritual practices that linked family hierarchy to the hierarchical order centered upon the emperor, the Son of Heaven. Thus, Catholic hierarchy could be seen as intertwined with and reinforcing the imperial hierarchy. This turned out to be a high road to conversion. In the Forbidden City we saw a clock Ricci had given a Ming emperor. We also saw an astronomical observatory that early Jesuits built in Beijing.

Ricci, we were told, once said, “To win the Chinese, bring mathematicians and astronomers -- and forget the theologians.” I asked Sr. Carroll and Teresa Yeung, a Chinese Catholic from Hong Kong, “If math and astronomy -- not theology -- were the keys to winning China then, what is the key today?” Both answered: “Serving the people.”

Catholicism in China today, Carroll continued, more by circumstance than choice, is still a “sanctuary church,” meaning it is preoccupied with the survival and pastoral care of the local parish. “It is not yet a prophetic church,” she went on. “For the most part there is not much emphasis on the social gospel.”

The early Jesuits were fabulously successful in making inroads into the imperial court. But it was not to last.

The success of the Jesuits soon drew other religious orders to China, including Dominicans in 1631 and Franciscans in 1633. The new missionaries, fresh from Europe, looked with suspicion on the practices of the Jesuits. They thought the Jesuits had been in China so long they had lost touch with the one true faith. This eventually led to jealousy and the “Chinese rites” controversy, which centered on three issues: the Chinese name for God, ancestor worship and honor paid to Confucius.

For nearly 50 years the Jesuits defended their positions until, in 1709, Pope Clement XI officially condemned the Jesuits’ efforts. It was a fatal mistake. Persecutions almost immediately broke out, and for the next 100 years Christianity was viewed as a hostile and alien force. It took centuries for the church to admit its mistake. Only in 1939 did Pius XII finally rescind the decision, but by then the window of opportunity had long been closed.

One noted China historian, G. Thompson Brown, has written that “if the Jesuits would have been left to themselves, the Christian mission in China would have continued its remarkable growth with the possibility that China would have become a Roman Catholic nation.”

Two hours south of Xi’an by jet is the beautiful and restful city of Guilin in southern China where we visited the tiny church of St. Thérèse of Lisieux -- now really a temporary chapel since the roof caved in two years ago. We arrived a day before local Catholics would gather to dedicate a cornerstone for a new church. It was a proud moment. A young layman insisted we examine blueprints. We also watched as several laborers, digging with shovels, cleared rubble from where the new church would be built.

Looking into the future

These were Catholics of modest means but immodest ambitions. Although it is no longer unusual for Catholic churches to open or reopen in China -- we were told 6,000 churches have been built or restored in the past 10 years with government permission -- we also heard of newly constructed churches torn down because they had been built without permission. Securing permits can consume a lot of time and energy in China.

Catholics told us authorities had actually requested a larger church for downtown Guilin. They thought it would help the city’s booming tourist trade being built around boat cruises down the spectacular Li river. Catholics rejected that plan, however, choosing to build near the site of their former church. Funds are coming mostly from Germany.

Bishop Benedict Cai, 81, arrived by bus for the dedication ceremony after an eight-hour trip. Cai, who could scarcely have weighed more than 100 pounds, was all smiles as he greeted us. The church project is a testimony to cooperation and sheer determination. It will be built one brick at a time, on a foundation of sheer faith like churches of old.

But can the spirit hold out against consumerism, especially when consumer instincts, so long repressed, are now exposed to so many blandishments? Many of the young, we heard, are falling into the traps of rampant materialism. Perhaps this is understandable: This is the first generation to have “spending money.” Dazzling new economic opportunities have been opened up by an average 10 percent growth rate. These sudden changes have also forced many young people to ask questions about the meaning of it all.

Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai has been outspoken on the subject. He has called consumerism the greatest threat to the Chinese soul. “We feel very weak and powerless against the tide of modernization that brings a lot of products, including corruption, idolatry of money and spiritual vacuum.”

His is not an isolated concern. We also heard that many young Chinese are showing renewed interest in religion. The most common reason offered is that it fills a void left by discredited Marxist theory.

Shanghai, the last stop of our trip, has one of China’s best organized and wealthiest dioceses with more than 80 churches and large real estate holdings it has owned for a century. Shanghai is led by Bishop Jin, a Jesuit, considered one of China’s most educated bishops.

The Shanghai diocese runs a major and a minor seminary, a convent, a publishing house and a press. The printing press, run by nuns, is limited by law and tax regulation in what it can publish. Its focus is attempting to inculturate Chinese thought into Catholic prayer and spirituality. The actual printing press -- mainland China’s largest Catholic printing press -- is the result of fund-raising efforts, mostly in Europe, with the help of Maryknoll Fr. Ron Saucci and others.

We visited a Shanghai convent where the novice mistress could scarcely be past her 30th birthday.

We also saw China’s first -- and only -- retreat house, the Guangqi Spirituality Center, which opened last April. The three-story building, managed by nuns of the Shanghai diocese, has 51 double-occupancy rooms, a chapel dedicated to St. Ignatius, prayer rooms, conference rooms and a garden. It is being used to provide much needed meeting space for Catholic gatherings.

Jesuits in Europe donated one-third of the $1.2 million needed to build the retreat compound. Other foreigners, mostly Europeans, covered the rest. Two bronze plaques of donor names indicated a greater willingness among Europeans, including key members of the hierarchy, to fund China church projects. We were told that U.S. bishops have resisted assisting China’s Catholics because the official church’s bishops’ conference is not recognized by Rome.

On the last day of our trip, a local Catholic woman who spoke English handed me a note to better explain herself. It said: “Chinese Catholics are faithful to God, to the universal church and to the pope. ... We are one church, although we are separated in two parts. We aim toward a goal, which is to bring us to reconciliation and unity. ... We confess that we are loyal to the pope; we are members of the whole universal church.”

She was not the only person that day to stress the theme of unity. It arose again at our final Mass in China, in Christ the King Church in Shanghai. The priests in our group concelebrated with the local priest, Fr. Joseph Lu, a graduate of St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie, N.Y. Msgr. Fred Berardi, director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the New York archdiocese and a member of the tour, remembered Lu from those Dunwoodie days.

The closing hymn that Sunday morning moved us all deeply: the very recognizable “Ode to Joy,” celebrating humanity, unity and boundless spirit. Some in our group left with teary eyes. It was then I realized we had spent nearly three weeks witnessing nothing less than the triumph of the human spirit. None in our group could doubt that Catholicism had a future in China. We were less certain what shape that future would take.

National Catholic Reporter, January 29, 1999