December 2, 2005


Vigorous Church in China

A recent trip to China showed a vigorous Church there.

It was a sharp contrast to what existed there during a previous trip 19 years ago. At that time, the priest said the Mass in Latin while facing the wall, just as in pre-Vatican II days. This was an anomaly: The Chinese, who were not in communion with Rome, said the Mass in Latin while the Latin Rite Church used the vernacular. The small congregation, composed mainly of elderly Chinese women and members of diplomatic staffs, said their own prayers, usually the rosary, and the priest and congregation came together only at Communion.

All that has changed! On Sunday, Oct. 30, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, one of two Catholic churches in China’s capital, was packed. All the pews were taken and people were standing in the back several rows deep. Although there were people there from the international diplomatic staffs, at least 90 percent of the people were Chinese. Young people in the congregation, both singles and couples with their child, outnumbered the old people.

The 10 a.m. Mass was in English, with the first two readings said also in French, but there were also Masses in Chinese scheduled for other times. (The Chinese learn English beginning in the second grade, and billboards and road signs now are in both English and Chinese.) The Mass was like any of the Masses in the United States except that the hymns were sung with more enthusiasm, the words to the hymns and responses projected on large screens. Even the practice of holding hands across the aisles during the Our Father has spread to China.

This Church, obviously, is part of the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association since it’s out in the open. The Chinese government refuses it any connection with Rome. There is also an underground Catholic Church that maintains an allegiance to Rome. Eighteen of its bishops are in some form of detention. Masses are usually said and sacraments administered in private homes. Seminarians and religious are educated outside the country, and ordinations kept quiet.

The Catholic Patriotic Association permits the Catholic Church to conduct worship within a church but refuses to permit any religious instruction, lectures, or baptisms of anyone under the age of 18. That’s why millions of Catholics in China participate in the underground Church. Many of those who attended Mass in the cathedral probably go to the underground Church for religious instructions and baptism.

The number of Catholics, estimated now at 12 million, continues to grow in China. There are 110 dioceses, more than 6,000 churches, 136 bishops (70 in the open church and 66 underground, including those 18 in detention), more than 3,000 priests and 5,000 women religious. More than 70,000 Catholics live in Yichang and 300,000 live in the Three Gorges area. Most Catholics live in the Province of Hebei, where most of the inhabitants of many villages are poor Catholic farmers.

We hope that Pope Benedict XVI will be able to figure out a way to bring the open Catholic Church and the underground Church together. Right now, the Chinese government insists that the Vatican transfer its diplomatic mission from Taipei to Beijing and give the Chinese government a role in naming bishops in order to re-establish diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican. But for some time now, the Vatican has been quietly recognizing the legitimacy of the bishops appointed by the Catholic Patriotic Association, and it now recognizes about two-thirds of them.

That’s where the problem exists. Since the Vatican has recognized some bishops as legitimate but not others, and only legitimate bishops can ordain priests, nobody really knows who is a true bishop and who is not, and which priests have been validly ordained.

The people at that Mass, though, were simply there to worship God as true Catholics, as well as they can. At the prayers of the faithful, there was a prayer for “our bishop Michael,” but none for the pope. Whenever the Vatican and the Chinese government can agree to free the Church in China—and surely that will happen—the Catholics in China will be ready.

— John F. Fink


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