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China's Struggling Catholics: A Second Report on the Church in Beijing | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | Ignatius Insight | September 13, 2008

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Editor's Note: Dr. Anthony Clark, assistant professor of Asian history at the University of Alabama, is in Beijing, China, to spend four months as director of the University of Alabama Chinese Language and Culture Program in the capital of China. During his time there, he is writing a series of articles for Ignatius Insight about Catholicism in China; this is the second article in that series. For more about Dr. Clark, see his bio at the end of this article.

In my first report from China's harried capital ("China's Thriving Catholics: A Report From Beijing's South Cathedral", August 20, 2008) I described the vibrant parish life in Beijing's South Cathedral. Now the Olympics are over, the smog has returned, and the more challenging aspects of practicing the faith in China are more evident.

While optimism is appropriately in order, there remain many obstacles to free and unlimited expression of Catholic life in China. Beijing's four major Catholic churches continue to fill to overflowing, and the emerging and popular new 798 Art District was recently able to host an artistic photography exhibit of Catholic life in rural China without government intervention. However, it is still true that to openly practice Catholicism is to limit one's social opportunities.

Two things are required to advance in "New China's" political and educational system: a college degree, which only a small minority of Chinese are able to earn, and membership in the Communist Party, which is not open to Christians. Nor would Christians wish to join the Party, which is atheistic and has articulated its official goal to eradicate religion. Just as the so-called "Patriotic" Church was openly celebrating Mass around the time of the 2008 Olympics closing ceremonies, an "underground" bishop was arrested by Chinese authorities. Official tolerance of sanctioned religious practice is balanced by official intolerance of anyone outside of the sanctioned community.

In this installment, I shall describe Beijing's three other major churches and consider some of the enduring difficulties of being Catholic in China's modernizing capital. Besides the South Cathedral, Beijing has three major Catholic parishes: the Dongjiaominxiang Church, the Wangfujing Church, and the Xishiku Church.

Nestled almost invisibly in Beijing's old foreign Legation Quarter is the towering Dongjiaominxiang Church, also called St. Michael's. Facing the former Belgian embassy, St. Michael's is a gothic building possessing a remarkable history. The Diocese of Beijing's official record of this church notes that during Chairman Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the church was confiscated by Chinese officials and "occupied by the Dongjiaominxiang Primary School and Hong He Lou Restaurant" (Dongjiaominxiang tianzhutang, 1). During Mao's rule all religious buildings were taken by the authorities and reassigned to secular uses. St. Michael's was not restored to the Catholic community for liturgical services until December 23, 1989 (Dongjiaominxiang tianzhutang, 1). Presently, St. Michael's church hosts both a Chinese and Korean community, and it claims a strong tradition of Eucharistic adoration.

The most visible and active Catholic church in Beijing is the Wangfujing Church, or East Church, dedicated in the seventeenth century to St. Joseph. The original church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1702, and rebuilt the following year; the famous Jesuit painter, Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), produced paintings for this church. East Church was confiscated by the Qing (1644-1911) court during anti-Catholic persecutions in the mid-eighteenth century and demolished. It was rebuilt in 1884 in the Romanesque style, but was destroyed again by Boxers during the Boxer Uprising of 1900. It was rebuilt in 1905 in magnificent style, and became a flourishing Catholic parish until Chairman Mao's era, when the building was converted into a warehouse. This stunning Romanesque church fell into serious disrepair until it was returned to the Catholic community and restored in 2000. I attended a standing-room-only Sunday Mass at this church, and the celebrant invited new Catholics to recount their conversion stories. Their stories were summoning accounts of how Christ gave them a peace and sense of truth they've never known. They also described the fulfillment gained by entering the Catholic Church. I could not help but reflect on the painful realities they inevitably face by identifying themselves with Christianity in a largely anti-Christian country. As I stood waiting for a bus near a Korean Christian church I overheard a Chinese discussion about how embarrassing and ignorant Christians were; the anti-Christian rhetoric of the Maoist era still carries powerful social currency.

The largest and oldest actual Catholic building in Beijing is the Xishiku Church, popularly called North Church. This church was the bishops' See from 1860 to 1958, when it was confiscated by China's government during Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward campaign. This is the only church that survived the violence of the Boxer Uprising, which is surprising given the numbers of Boxers who besieged it. Professor Joseph Esherick recounts that "the Boxers concentrated most of their energy on the siege of the Catholics' Northern Cathedral. This was the last remaining church in the city, and some 10,000 Boxers joined in the siege of over 3,000 Christians and 40 French and Italian marines" (Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, 307). The bishop of the church at that time, Pierre-Marie-Alphonse Favier, C.M. (1837-1905), kept a journal during the siege that movingly describes the drama of the attacks on the church. According to Mei Qianli, the Boxers assaulted the church for sixty-two days, and the siege was not stopped until foreign armies marched into Beijing to restore peace (Mei Qianli, Beijing jiaotang, 64).

The Catholics in Beijing almost unanimously refer to the North Church as the capital's most beautiful church, and it is indeed a stunning mix of Western and Chinese architecture. The North Church today boasts the largest and perhaps the most active Catholic community, and like all Catholic churches in China, it is comprised of entirely Chinese parishioners. Since citizenship is presently denied to non-Chinese, the only non-Chinese persons attending Mass are "foreign guests."

Despite, or perhaps because of, the cultural homogeny in Beijing's churches, guests are warmly, if not exuberantly, welcomed. Lay Catholics are stationed throughout each church to assist and greet guests. I have recently read some Western news accounts of "Patriotic" Catholic churches with Communist overseers placed in the back of each Mass to observe Catholic activities. This is romantic contrivance; the people with official badges in the rear of Catholic churches in China are lay volunteers who watch the church facilities during Masses and other parish activities. In fact, if you speak Chinese and can speak with these "overseers," they are a valuable source of information regarding popular devotions in China. Lest my account appear blindly buoyant I should note some of the persisting problems with the "Patriotic" association in China presently.

While the devotional life of China's Catholics is indeed rich and pious, priests of the "Patriotic" association are required to avoid aspects of Catholic teaching that contradict the country's national policies. Abortion and contraception, for example, are not topics you will hear addressed in a "Patriotic" Catholic church. While generalization can often be unfair and misrepresentative, it is, I believe, accurate to note that there is a general sense of disconnectedness with the Pope among Catholics who attend the "Patriotic" associations services. Other than a very few token images of Pope John Paul II, I have only seen a single image of the present Pope, Benedict XVI, in any Beijing church under the care of the "Patriotic" association. The Pope is certainly mentioned in all Masses in China, and there is a general sense of his pastoral leadership, but awareness of his day-to-day teachings and news regarding events and trends in the Vatican are nearly non-existent on a popular level. Priests are additionally not allowed to consult China's national archives, so they are restricted from researching the Catholic history in their own country. As one bishop informed me, the official history disseminated by state agencies about the Church in China is often filled with errors and misrepresentation.

One peculiar reality about the Catholic Church in China is that while it is incorporated into the Universal Church, it is nonetheless not racially and culturally "universal." While the hierarchy of Church in China before the Communist era began in 1949 was largely comprised of Western missionaries, it is now entirely run by native Chinese. On the one hand it is sensible to have a native clergy and hierarchy, while on the other hand such racial and cultural homogeny creates an atmosphere of closed-ness and excessive independence. If I may render a polite criticism of the priests of the "Patriotic" Catholic Church: they tend to speak in an overly Nationalistic tenor. Bishops are referred to as the "People's bishops"; that is, they are "selected by the People." In fact, during a meeting with an auxiliary bishop I was directed to refer to him as "Father" rather than "Bishop," since he was "selected by the People," and is thus "one of the People." While all are ultimately equal in the view of Christianity, their respective positions are not.

Also, despite the fact that the Patriotic Church is by and large in open communion with the Roman Pontiff, the bishops of the "Patriotic" Church are, at least in public discourse, "selected by the People," rather than the Pope, to whom God has given charge of this responsibility. This said, as I met with the bishop, who I uncomfortably called Father, we discussed one of his prized possessions, a large photo of him and Pope John Paul II in a warm embrace. Despite the circumstances of his election and consecration to the episcopate, he was notably and emotionally attached to the God-appointed pastor of the Catholic Church. If China's Church is complexly awkward, it is also devoted to the faith it preaches.

Finally, I should say something of the emerging young Chinese Catholics, who display a refreshing zeal and optimism for the future of their faith. I am writing this report just after returning from Mass at one of Beijing's lesser-known churches, the Xizhimen church, dedicated to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. It is at this church that an image of Pope Benedict XVI appears on the bulletin board near the church's entrance. Before and after Mass I was approached by several college-age Catholics who had earned degrees abroad, and had returned to China with a sense of the rest of the Catholic world. Mass had a more international character at Xizhimen church, though it was an admixture of awkwardly stitched together liturgical traditions and languages. The music was largely in English, Mass was in Chinese, and the prayers after Mass were intoned following the musical patterns of Buddhist chanting. Receiving Holy Communion on the hands is relatively new to China, and to assure proper reverence for the Body of Our Lord, hand sanitizer swabs were distributed to each communicant before receiving the Host. After Mass, I briefly met with the parish priest, who warmly welcomed me to his church, and the young organist—a graduate of a Canadian university—agreed to have lunch with me to discuss Catholic life in China today.

The young men and women of China seem optimistically dismissive (or nave) of China's political turbulence over the past several decades, looking ahead to a Church that is more and more free from state control, and a Christian life that accepts the challenges of the world with joyful expectation. The Beijing diocese today has over 100,000 Catholics, fifty-five priests, fifty nuns, and around twenty seminarians. No one understands the persistent antagonisms between the Church in China and the government in China better that the Chinese Catholics themselves, but as the bishop of Beijing, Li Shan, asserts, quoting St. Paul, China's Catholics ultimately live "for the proclamation of the Gospel and for the sharing of the Good News of Jesus with others" (1 Cor. 9:23).


Dongjiaominxiang Church/St. Michael's Church:

Wangfujing Church/East Church:

Xishiku Church/North Church:

[Photos courtesy of Dr. Anthony Clark.]

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:

China's Thriving Catholics: A Report From Beijing's South Cathedral | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | August 20, 2008
Two Chinese Churches? Or One? | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
On Writing A History of Christianity in China | Preface to Christians In China: A.D. 600 to 2000 | Fr. Jean-Pierre Charbonnier
Two Weeks in the Eternal City: From the Vatican Secret Archives to the Basilica of St. Charles Borromeo | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.

Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. is assistant professor of Asian history at the University of Alabama.

He did his doctoral studies at the University of Oregon, where he studied Chinese history, philosophy, and religion. His more recent research has centered on East/West religious dialogue. He has also been researching the history of Catholic martyrs in China and has recently finished writing a book on that subject.

Dr. Clark has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and has also been a guest on "EWTN Live." and "Catholic Answers Live" to talk about Catholicism in China. He is also a contributing editor for This Rock magazine.

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