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China's Catholics of Guizhou: Three Days with Three Bishops | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | October 3, 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 third article in that series. For more about Dr. Clark, see his bio at the end of this article.

In the nineteenth century several intrepid French missionary priests from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (M.E.P.) traveled to China's southern Guizhou province, where many holy Chinese Catholics later sacrificed their lives rather than apostatize. Just one hour outside of Guizhou's capital city, Guiyang, rests the grave of four Chinese saints who were beheaded in 1861 when a Qing dynasty official led a persecution against Catholic believers.

Despite repeated challenges, the Church has continued in Guizhou ever since the Gospel was planted there nearly two centuries ago. The Catholic faithful there have a turbulent history, but in spite of two hundred years of suffering the Church in Guizhou can now boast a flourishing community.

I was recently granted audiences with the three bishops of Guizhou during a three-day visit to the cathedral in Guiyang, the provincial capital. I was first granted an audience with the ninety-year-old principle bishop of Guiyang, His Excellency Wang Chongyi. Second, I was granted a private interview with the eighty-year-old "underground" bishop, His Excellency Hu Daguo. And finally, I had a brief interview with the young, recently consecrated bishop, His Excellency Xiao Zejiang. The situation in Guizhou with the bishops is complex, but the devotional life of the faithful is rich.

When most Catholics outside of China envision the sanctioned Church under the watchful eyes of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association they imagine clergy and faithful largely independent of Rome's direction. And when they imagine the "underground" community, they conjure a vision of Catholic clergy and faithful dodging Chinese authorities, practicing their faith in hidden locations. Despite this image, both the sanctioned and "underground" Catholic communities are in many cases only slightly distinguishable.

In Guiyang, the "underground" bishop actually lives at the cathedral along with the two bishops recognized by the Catholic Patriotic Association. Which bishops are in communion with the Pope is common knowledge among the Chinese faithful, and if a bishop is in open communion with Holy Father it matters little which community he is in. Conditions are not perfect, however, and the authorities commonly harass members of the "underground" clergy; the more publicly active bishops are sometimes arrested and mistreated. The "underground" bishop who lives at the Guiyang cathedral must maintain a low profile to avoid being hassled by the local police. Although Bishop Hu lives at the cathedral with the other bishops, he is nonetheless forced to carry his Episcopal ring, given to him by Pope John Paul II, in his pocket.

My first audience was with Bishop Wang Chongyi, a warm and welcoming man who was ordained a priest in 1949. We were allowed to speak candidly in a closed room. Bishop Wang gave me an account of how the Church had suffered through the first few decades of the Peoples Republic of China, founded in 1949. The new Communist government viewed all religion as superstitious, and thus attempted to eradicate it in China; this was an era of extreme danger and suffering for Catholics. Bishops and priests were forced to laicize, and during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), clergy and professed women were apprehended, ordered to apostatize, and often beaten by Chairman Mao's Red Guards or Party officials.

Bishop Wang, then a priest, was personally "struggled against" and ordered to renounce his faith. Refusing to do so, the Communist authorities condemned him to hard labor. He described that time as a period of extreme hardship, and he informed me that he personally knew many priests who were tortured and murdered by the authorities for refusing to apostatize. China has many, many martyr saints who died for Christ during the Maoist era, but they are now forgotten to the world because there are no records of their lives.

Practicing Catholicism openly during Mao's rule was life threatening, and as Bishop Wang stated: "No matter where you looked or how hard you searched, you could not see a Catholic anywhere; the faith was in their hearts, invisible to the outside." For decades there was not a Mass or sacrament offered openly in China. Bishop Wang said that, "If you were a Catholic you thought that the Church was over in China; there was no more Catholicism here." Catholic churches and properties were all taken by the government and destroyed or reassigned to secular uses—schools, factories, restaurants, or Communist Party halls.

The beautiful cathedral in Guiyang was terribly mistreated during the Cultural Revolution; the top section of its tall clock tower was destroyed, and was not repaired until 1982. "Things for the Church here got much better starting in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping gained control," asserted Bishop Wang. He stated that Deng openly promoted religious tolerance, though this did not entail complete freedom for Chinese Catholics. Once Catholics were again allowed to worship in the 1980s, the cathedral in Guiyang was restored in 1982. Despite the growing freedom in the Chinese church, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association still looms over its clergy.

The Catholic Patriotic Association was founded to keep the Church in China disconnected from the Pope's leadership in Rome, and priests were officially forbidden from mentioning the Pope's name during Mass, or in any other context. Bishops were also to be elected "by the people," which meant in reality that they were to be elected by the Party. "Even though we were shut off from the Holy Father by the government," Bishop Wang stated, "we remained loyal and connected to him in our hearts, and by our prayers." He also said, "If we mentioned the Pope's name in Mass we were arrested by the police and put into jail, so when we got to the part in Mass where we were supposed to mention the Pope's name out loud, we mentioned him in our hearts. We remained faithful to the Pope." Regarding episcopal elections, Bishop Wang Chongyi informed me that: "In most cases when the Patriotic Association approaches a priest who it has chosen to be consecrated a bishop, the priest first finds out through various means if the Pope approves of his election. If Rome approves, the priest accepts his election, but if Rome does not approve, he declines the election and remains a priest." There have been a few who have accepted their election without Rome's approval; however, implicit communion with the Pope is requisite for acceptance by the faithful in China.

Beyond the complexities of exercising pastoral responsibilities in Communist China, Bishop Wang assured me that the spiritual life of Chinese Catholics is vibrant and increasingly free from government intervention. At the end of our meeting, Bishop Wang gave me a private message he wished me to convey to the Holy Father in writing, and then he gave me his apostolic blessing. After our open discussion of the state of the Church in China, I realized that all the while the director of the Guizhou Catholic Patriotic Association, Fr. Ma, was sitting in the next room. There is more freedom in the Chinese Church than previously, but in the end the government's tendrils remain firmly entrenched in Church affairs.

The following day I was taken by Fr. Liu, a priest at the cathedral, to meet one of the most holy people I have ever encountered, "underground" Bishop Hu Daguo. When first seeing Bishop Hu one notices that his small, frail body is stooped over, and his legs are clearly unable to walk comfortably. I later learned that these health problems result from his many years of torture and imprisonment by the Communist authorities. Bishop Hu is commonly called "the third bishop in Guiyang," because while he is a consecrated bishop he is only listed on the official Guizhou records as a priest.

When I arrived at Bishop Hu's small and humble room he sat in an old chair, and the first words he said to me were "Thanks be to God." His manner was peaceful and cheerful, and he punctuated his speech with two phrases: "Thanks be to God" and "I am deeply grateful for God's help." I asked Bishop Hu about his personal experiences as a priest in the "underground" Catholic community, and even while discussing his time in prison and the tortures he endured, he smiled, laughed, and thanked God for His blessings and help. Bishop Hu recalled that he began his seminary training in the 1940s and was ordained in 1950. He recounted that during the Cultural he was arrested by 300 Red Guards and placed in the middle of a large crowd. After being restrained, a tall white dunce hat was placed on his head to humiliate him, and he was denounced and physically beaten. They demanded that he apostatize, but he refused. Bishop Hu was imprisoned because he would not denounce his faith and leave the priesthood.

Without a sign of despair or regret, Bishop Hu described his ordeals in prison. He was imprisoned for more than twenty years, denied the sacraments and any object related to his religious beliefs. Thus, he was denied Holy Communion or confession for over two decades. He used his fingers to pray his daily Rosary and he remained loyal to the Pope in spite of constant pressure to be loyal only to China.

Bishop Hu described four methods employed on him to disengage him from his faith. First, he had to endure constant lessons on Marxist thought. He said that, "They used this method to try and brainwash me." Second, the Chinese authorities enlisted an attractive woman and tried to force Bishop Hu Daguo to marry her. Third, the Communist authorities offered him an extremely high-salaried job, hoping to entice him with wealth. Fourth, Bishop Hu was beaten and mistreated, which has left his legs partially crippled and his body stooped over. None of these methods were effective. I told Bishop Hu that I admired him for his courage, but he insisted that I should "admire God" instead of him.

After discussing Bishop Hu's experiences during the Cultural Revolution and his twenty-year imprisonment, we briefly discussed his situation as an "underground" bishop. I learned that if more than only a small number people visit him, or if he attracts attention, he is visited by the police and scolded. In fact, Fr. Liu recalled incidents when the Chinese authorities sent police to visit Bishop Hu. Bishop Hu's final comments were on Communism; he noted that the Party is evil, and he suggested that there is no room for optimism regarding Communism's place vis--vis the Church. It was clear that his comments were meant to imply that any influence Communism has on the Church's work in China are laden with difficulties; this final comment was clearly directed at the corrupting role the Patriotic Catholic Association has on the Chinese Church. He has experienced first hand how the post-1949 Chinese officials have treated, and continue to treat, clergy who openly reject or denounce the government's enforced divisions between the Chinese Church and the Catholic leadership in Rome.

At the end of our meeting, Bishop Hu asked for his old and tattered purple stole, which he kissed and placed over his shoulders. Fr. Liu and I knelt before the frail bishop while he prayed for us and imparted his blessing. After blessing us, Bishop Hu asked Fr. Liu for his blessing, and the weak bishop knelt humbly before the young priest to receive God's blessing.

During my final day at the Guiyang cathedral I was given a brief audience with the recently consecrated Bishop Xiao Zejiang, a youthful forty-one-year-old man who received his theological training in part from an American Jesuit teaching at Shanghai's Sheshan Seminary. We openly discussed the very few bishops who are not presently sanctioned by Rome. Bishop Xiao himself was selected by the Pope, and his Episcopal ring was sent to him by Benedict XVI.

There are nonetheless some bishops who have been consecrated without Rome's approval, and their position in the Catholic community remains wooly. One large problem is that some priests are pressured by the authorities to accept consecration, and these pressures are sometimes quite serious. Certainly, they are validly ordained bishops, but their standing with Rome is strained. In many cases the Chinese authorities ask priests who are too young and inexperienced to be bishops, perhaps mostly because they feel that they will be more easily influenced by Party representatives. Bishop Xiao assured me candidly, however, that such bishops are in fact committed to the Church's teachings and to spreading the Gospel. Present circumstances in China remain problematic for the clergy, and until the Chinese Church is given complete freedom from government involvement, the Chinese authorities will continue to influence episcopal ordinations. Bishop Xiao imparted his apostolic blessing to me before I departed, and Fr. Liu hailed a cab to take me back to my hotel.

There are still many Catholics who venerate the grave of the four Qing dynasty martyr saints of Guizhou, despite the government's prohibition against visiting the site. The martyr saints remain powerful examples of Christian sacrifice in a world hostile to the Church and the Gospel she teaches. The Catholics in Guizhou have endured many hardships over the past few centuries, but their faith in Christ has endured despite their suffering.

During a walk through Guiyang, Fr. Liu and I discussed the Catholic devotion to Mary, and it was clear that in China that devotion is particularly strong. In the cathedral there is a banner that proclaims, "Our Lady of China, cause of our joy, pray for us!" And after every Mass the faithful remain in their pews to offer thanksgiving to God and to honor Mary through beautifully sung songs and chanted litanies. As one of the Catholic faithful said to me, "We Catholics are all one family, no matter what country we are from," and this is true.

I have seen and learned much during my visit to Guizhou, but perhaps the most important thing I learned was that they remain firm in their love for God and loyalty to the Church, and whatever hardships and complications they are forced to endure, Christ will remain the center of their lives.

Grave of the four Catholic martyr saints of Qingyanzhen.

Bishop Wang Chongyi delivering a homily at daily Mass in the Guiyang cathedral.

Dr. Anthony Clark with the "underground" bishop, Hu Daguo.

The back door of the Guiyang cathedral in Guizhou, China.

The front of the Guiyang cathedral in Guizhou, China.

Prayers after Mass in the Guiyang cathedral.

[Photos courtesy of Dr. Anthony Clark.]

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:

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