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The Church in China: Complexity and Community | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | December 22, 2008 | Ignatius Insight

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Editor's Note: Dr. Anthony Clark, assistant professor of Asian history at the University of Alabama, recently returned, in mid-December, from Beijing, China, where he spent four months as director of the University of Alabama Chinese Language and Culture Program in the capital of China. During his time there, he wrote a series of articles for Ignatius Insight about Catholicism in China; this is the fourth and final article in that series. For more about Dr. Clark, see his bio at the end of this article.

During my final month in China, after three months of exhausting travels and research at various Catholic areas in the Middle Kingdom, I had the most intense encounters of my entire visit. These most recent experiences were at Hunan and Shanxi provinces. I have met many bishops, priests, nuns, and faithful, some of whom are in China surreptitiously. The clergy in China, Chinese and foreign, is as disparate as China's many dialects, which are at times mutually unintelligible.

I'll begin with an account of my first evening in Hunan's capital, Wuhan. After an afternoon meeting with the priest in charge of the cathedral, St. Joseph's, I received an evening phone call from another priest at the cathedral: "I'm calling you from a public phone because the church lines and my personal cell are all tapped by the government. Can you meet me at the main gate of Binjiang Park?" I found him there and we walked into a dark side path to discuss the complexities of the Catholic community in Wuhan. He informed me that the Patriotic Catholic Association was particularly severe there, and that two of the priests are intimately involved with the Communist authorities in Hunan, and that they are suspicious and paranoid of visitors from the outside. I was an outsider, and as one who has researched at the Vatican, I was not really welcome by the priests in charge.

As much as the Church has improved in some parts of China, there remain areas like Wuhan where the Vatican is best unmentioned, the faith is best diluted to make it palatable to the government, and the priests who attest any loyalty to Rome are persecuted—not only by the authorities, but also by their fellow priests who are content with the status quo. Priests who cooperate are richly rewarded; one of the priests at the cathedral sent me away with his private car and driver to conduct my research while being chaperoned. As I walked with the priest through the dimly lit park trail it became clear to me that he would have been elected to be Wuhan's next bishop, but his loyalties to the Pope had resulted in an official party refusal to allow his consecration. So far, Wuhan has no bishop because the Vatican and the local Communist cadres cannot agree who should be chosen.

Tapped phones, priests who collaborate with the Communist authorities, wealthy priests who are taken care of by the party, and pulpits that disseminate a diluted and censored version of the faith: this is the unfortunate condition of some Catholic dioceses in China. But despite the corruption of some of China's clergy, there remains a vibrant community of Catholics who are led by many good priests, some "underground" and some "aboveground." While many may insist, quite understandably, that the Catholic Church in the United States is divided, the Chinese Church has much worse divisions. These divisions are exacerbated by constant pressures and persecutions exerted by a government officially opposed to religion, and which tolerates it only inasmuch as it facilitates its material goals. Doing business with other countries necessitates a modicum of religious tolerance, as largely Christian countries frown on the totalitarian tactics more openly employed in China's recent past.

Hidden below the surface of Wuhan's political complexities is a community of believers who remain devoted to their faith and two holy saints canonized in 2000 by Pope John Paul II. Across the Yangze River from the cathedral is Wuchang district, where two French Vincentian priests were martyred during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). This was why I had traveled there, to locate the precise spot where they had been tortured and killed for refusing to apostatize. I had previously met with three Vincentians who had attempted to find the site several years ago but were chased away by the paranoid Wuhan authorities.

St. Francis Regis Clet, C.M. (1748-1820) arrived in China in 1791, and worked there for 27 years until he was detained during one of China's many Catholic persecutions. His church and school were destroyed, and he endured weeks of torture for refusing to deny Christ. In the end, he was condemned to death on February 18, 1820; he was taken to the official execution ground at Wuchang, and tied to a wooden frame in the shape of a cross. He was slowly strangled by a rope, and his remains were retrieved by faithful Catholics. The execution of his confrere, St. John Gabriel Perboyre, C.M. (1802-1840), was held on the very same spot twenty years later.

The young Vincentian, John Gabriel, was dispatched to China in 1835, and by 1839 a new persecution broke out in the area of his mission. He was betrayed by one of his catechumens for a sum of money and was stripped of his garments, bound in chains, and transferred from tribunal to tribunal. He endured appalling torments. On September 11, 1840, his afflictions ended where Clet's had; he was, like Clet, tied to a wooden cross and strangled to death.

Wuhan's older Catholics keep Sts. Clet and Perboyre alive in their memories and prayers, though the younger generation is rarely taught of their sacrifices. The official Qing execution ground in Wuchang is well known to elderly residents who grew up there, and I was directed to the precise spot by 89-year-old Ms. Gan Yulan, who walked slowly on feet that were bound when she was a young girl. Tucked inconspicuously behind a high-rise apartment building is the area where Sts. Clet and Perboyre suffered their final agonies, a spot held sacred by the Catholic faithful of Wuhan. Their remains were eventually removed to the Vincentian Motherhouse in Paris, where they are kept today in the same chapel as the incorrupt body of St. Vincent de Paul (1588-1660).

Their gravestones were hidden by Catholics during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1977) to avoid destruction, and reside today in the seminary courtyard at Huayuanshan in Wuchang. I asked a young seminarian there about the gravestones of Sts. Clet and Perboyre in the courtyard just a few feet away, and he looked puzzled: "What gravestones?" An old woman who was listening to our conversation walked closer to tell him the story of the martyrs who had died in Wuchang. There is a chasm between the older generation of Catholics who were raised to honor local saints, and the younger Catholics at Wuhan who are "protected" from the history of "foreign priests who invaded China." During a second meeting with the priest who had called me secretly the night before, he informed me that it was one of his goals to "fill in the gaps" missing from the memories of today's generation, and one of his first aims is to teach the young about Wuchang's saints, though he knows well that praising the actions of foreign "invaders" is precarious.

In almost every way Shanxi is the far opposite of Wuhan (both geographically and socially); such extreme polarity is not uncommon in China, and the Chinese Church is typical of Chinese culture. When I arrived at Shanxi, I was warmly greeted by a man in what I had never before seen worn openly in the People's Republic of China: a Roman collar. Fr. Zhang Jinqing smilingly welcomed us to Shanxi, and ushered us off to what was perhaps the most inconceivable experience I have had in Asia. After a breakfast at a local-style restaurant—noodles and warm soup—we drove into the outskirts of Taiyuan, Shanxi's capital city. I was astonished to observe that as we drove we passed church after church; Catholic steeples dotted the landscape. We passed a massive church under construction, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was five minutes from another church dedicated to St. Anthony, and then another dedicated to St. Mary.

Fr. Zhang informed me that at one church there were up to twenty Masses celebrated on Sunday to accommodate the large numbers of the Catholics. We were on our way to a Marian pilgrimage site at a place called Banquan Mountain. This is where China's Catholics honor a location believed to be where Mary appeared to a humble village girl. France has "Our Lady of Lourdes" and China has "Our Lady of Banquan." It is distressing that the Chinese Church is so disconnected from Rome that this site remains uninvestigated by Vatican officials.

As the popular account recalls, near the end of the Ming dynasty (ca. 1643) a simple young girl from a Catholic village was watching sheep for her family when Mary appeared to her and asked that a church be built. She returned home and told the local villagers that Mary had asked for a church to be constructed. The villagers did not believe her, however, because "she was ugly," and they refused to build the church. She was again greeted by an apparition of the Virgin, whom she told about the villagers' response. Our Lady commanded her to wash her face in a nearby spring (Banquan), and she was made beautiful at once. The villagers recognized it as a miracle and set out to build the church, gathering materials and placing them at the area they intended to begin construction. The following day the materials had all disappeared, but were later discovered where Mary had again appeared to the girl. They knew this as an order to build the church in the alternate location. Immediately before and during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) Mary continued to appear at Banquan Mountain to Catholics to comfort them through their suffering. Fr. Zhang noted that 60-70 percent of Taiyuan's faithful claim to have seen Mary at Banquan Mountain, including himself. Each May around 120,000 pilgrims travel to Banquan Mountain, where 10 to 12 Masses are offered daily to large crowds.

We visited several other churches, including an abandoned Franciscan residence and seminary on the slope of Dongergou Village, where many martyrs prayed, studied, and celebrated Mass together over a century ago. In 1902, a Shanxi Confucian named Liu Dapeng (1857-1942), wrote in his diary of the Franciscan residence at Dongergou:
The villagers all follow the foreign religion. The village lies at the foot of the hills, with the church standing on the slope of the hill, surrounded by a wall. There are many buildings within the wall. The site is impressive and the buildings are all in the foreign style.
After photographing these crumbling structures and walking through the former residence of Blessed Mary Assunta, F.M.M. (1878-1905), near the abandoned residence, I met with the two bishops at the imposing Taiyuan cathedral. We discussed the strength of the Catholic Church in Shanxi and, among other things, we conferred about where, in 1900, several Franciscan bishops, priests, and nuns, were abused and killed by the local magistrate. On July 9, 1900, during the height of the Boxer Uprising (1898-1900), the anti-Christian magistrate, Yuxian, ordered his lictors and local Boxers to seize Bishops Gregory Grassi, O.F.M. (1823-1900), Francis Fogolla, O.F.M. (1839-1900), and their companions, to be bound, stripped of their upper garments, and paraded down "Pig-head Alley" to the gate of his yamen.

St. Grassi and companions were "tried" at the magistrate's gate before being beheaded. Louis Nazaire Cardinal Bégin (1840-1925) recorded the account of a witness at the massacre:
'Kill them, kill them!' roared the crowd. Yu-Hsien striking with his own sword cried: 'Kill them!' At this sight the soldiers began the slaughter, dealing bows right and left, cruelly injuring their victims before giving the final stroke. Father Elie, aged sixty one years, received more than one hundred sword cuts and at each lifted his eyes to heaven saying: 'I go to heaven.' During the scene the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary were spectators, for their executioners hoped the sight of the martyred priests would make their own death more horrible. They knelt in prayer with eyes lifted to heaven, praying for the martyrs, for the conversion of their persecutors and for the perseverance of the Christians. . . . The nuns embraced each other, intoned the Te Deum, and presented their heads to the executioners – a stroke of the sword and all was over!
I rehearsed this description to Fr. Zhang and others as we stood on he very spot where they rendered their lives to God. In fact, we visited many such places in Shanxi, where Catholics had been killed for refusing to apostatize. The martyrs are still honored there for their devotion to Christ.

Juxtaposing the regretful state of the Church in Wuhan to the thriving Catholic community in Shanxi underscores the disparities between China's more than thirty provinces. China's 1.3 billion people are difficult to homogenize, despite the government's attempts to do so. It remains certain that religious freedom is an unwelcome principle in Communist China, which officially holds that religion is merely an adolescent stage in human evolution, and a hindrance to the utopia possible only through Marxism.

As I spoke with Catholics in large cities and remote villages all over China I heard countless stories of parents and grandparents who had suffered imprisonment and mistreatment for stubbornly retaining their faith. I met some who were only just released from internment. Being Catholic in China today is easier than it was twenty or thirty years ago, but as "underground" bishop, Hu Daguo, told me, "As long as Communism is the driving ideology of China, the Church will be hated and persecuted."

The Catholic Church today is still watched by a suspicious government, just as it was during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties, but as the reach of world media expands, China can less easily persecute Catholics without global attention. We can, and should, pray that the Church in China is freed from State control. I have seen much of the Chinese Church, and what strikes me most is how misunderstood it is by the outside. Yes, it is persecuted by a government that has not yet entirely shed its old Maoist paranoia. It is still largely cut off from the rest of the world; its bishops and priests cannot openly communicate with Rome. Indeed, one priest at Beijing's major seminary informed me that Vatican communication had been for the most part absent for the past few years. The Chinese Church is sadly isolated.

But hackneyed assertions that only the "underground Church" is the real Church in China are not only wrong, they are hurtful and insensitive to the reality that both the "underground" and "aboveground" communities suffer from the same persecutions, frequently standing side by side. "Underground" and "aboveground" bishops often live under the same roof, and many faithful Catholics navigate fluidly between "underground" and "aboveground" chapels.

On my final day in China I met Brother Marcel Zhang, perhaps the last living survivor of the 1947 massacre of the Trappist Abbey ay Yangjiaping. Brother Marcel recounted how the People's Liberation Army had ransacked his monastery, accused the monks of being "foreign spies," forced them on a death march, and stoned many to death. After surviving the violence he became an "underground" Catholic, living as a dairy farmer and cheese seller during the Maoist era. Today he is active in the choir at Beijing's North Church (formerly the North Cathedral), where other "underground" Catholics attend Masses celebrated by priests under the Patriotic Catholic Association. The priest of my own parish in Beijing, Fr. Pang Wenxian, told me at lunch about the "underground" Catholics near his church; in fact, you might find them at his Mass on Sundays.

The situation of the Church in China is complex, and convenient categories are no longer useful. Fr. Pang has a large photo of Pope Benedict XVI hanging above his desk, and openly acclaims his personal loyalty to Rome, despite the cameras outside the church gate that monitor who enters and leaves throughout the day. Fr. Pang is like most priests in China, "underground" or "aboveground"; they are focused on their ministries, and shake their heads that the outside world does not understand. Fr. Pang knows better than most how complex the situation of Catholicism is in China, but when confronted about it he wisely suggests: "Pray your Rosary everyday and be a good Catholic." In many ways we have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters in China.

Images from the Catholic Church in China. Click on links to view. All photos courtesy of Dr. Anthony Clark:

• Image 1: Church dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, under construction (Shanxi) – Anthony Clark
• Image 2: Banquan Mountain Marian Shrine (Shanxi) – Anthony Clark
• Image 3: Fr. Zhang Jinqing at Banquan Mountain Shrine (Shanxi) – Anthony Clark
• Image 4: Abandoned Franciscan Residence (Shanxi) – Anthony Clark
• Image 5: Our Lady of Seven Dolors Shrine (Shanxi) – Anthony Clark
• Image 6: Anthony Clark and Descendants of Martyrs (Shanxi) – Anthony Clark
• Image 7: Anthony Clark and Bishop Meng Ningyou (Shanxi) – Anthony Clark
• Image 8: Anthony Clark and Bishop Li Jiantang (Shanxi) – Anthony Clark
• Image 9: Catholic Faithful at Liuhe Village (Shanxi) – Anthony Clark
• Image 10: Order of Friars Minor Martyr Saints of Taiyuan (Shanxi)
• Image 11: Franciscan Missionaries of Mary Martyr Saints of Taiyuan (Sanxi)
• Image 12: Sts. Francis Regis Clet, C.M. and John Gabriel Perboyre, C.M. (Hubei) – Anthony Clark
• Image 13: Funerary Tablets of Sts. Clet and Perboyre (Hubei) – Anthony Clark
• Image 14: Anthony Clark and Bro. Marcel Zhang, last survivor of the Massacre at Yanjiaping Trappist Abbey (Beijing) – Anthony Clark
• Image 15: Bishop Li Shan (middle) and Fr. Pang Wenxian (right)

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:

China's Catholics of Guizhou: Three Days with Three Bishops | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | October 3, 2008
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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