In April 2016, I joined Archbishop George Lucas of the Omaha archdiocese on a trip of a lifetime – spending 17 days in China! Initial excitement and anxiety centered on the imaginings of such an ancient, rich, culture … being exposed directly to the East – another great orientation of humanity … walking amidst such a large population under the rule of a very different form of government. Also as a Catholic and priest, I was curious about the sense of Church that resides in China: What characterizes the spirit of the Catholic faith there?
Columban, Fr. Troy began as our tour guide – meeting us at Hong Kong airport and orchestrating our itinerary. Rather quickly it became apparent that we were being immersed into China through the relationships of this Columban missionary priest who has made China his home these past sixteen years. Yes, we were privileged to visit the grand sites of the terra cotta warriors in Xian, the Great Wall outside Beijing, and the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Yes, we walked the river’s promenade in Shanghai and the streets of Honk Kong. Spectacular sites!
And yet, each day included the meeting of a variety of people – laity and clergy, communities and individuals, professionals and laborers, rich and poor. The true richness of China became these specific people, with stories of laughter, joy, pride, and triumph over challenges. To share my experience of China is to introduce you to some of the Chinese people I met.
In Xiantao we encountered two priests who showed us a couple of new churches under construction. I was struck by the healthy pride the two men carried about their faith and their local parishes. For example both could identify how many generations the Catholic faith existed in their families (something I could not do). While realistically acknowledging the burdens of the construction projects, there was enthusiasm and joy in their faces and in the tone of their voices as they spoke about the future of their local communities of faith. I found their joy a contrast to my often-cynical views about the church’s struggles in the modern world. It was refreshing!
In Shanghai we were introduced to a contrast of faith’s presence in that large and bustling city. On one late morning we met a fine young man who is committed to a community who takes seriously regular meditation. With humble confidence and competence he described the prayer form employed by his community as a means to find and participate in a deeper faith. His personal conviction was also demonstrated by his willingness to instruct local faith communities – Catholic and Protestant – on how to meditate according to this prayer form. In contrast, later that day, a wealthy gentleman generously provided a beautiful evening around the promenade along the river. That night’s conversation was how a few businessmen gather regularly to discuss the manner in which their faith fashions their management styles and judgments within their corporations. Both men were genuine in their seeking God in Christ; both were generous in sharing that faith with others, including us.
On another day, in another setting, our trip led us to a couple of local artists. Each one’s art took on a stronger statement of character due to the physical handicaps each suffers. One could see a resolute spirit in them: despite the physical challenges, they were bringing beauty into the world. They were making a financial contribution to their families; they were stating emphatically that their lives had purpose and value.
Besides such prearranged introductions there were several delightful hap-and-chance interactions that revealed how the Chinese people are gracious, hospitable, inquisitive, and proud. One example was a particular tour guide who found our interests (as Western tourists) curious, and ended up recommending a nearby restaurant and joining us for dinner. She spoke about her husband and daughter; she was open about her questions that I would consider religious in nature. In another city, by coincidence we ended up with the same taxi cab driver for two days consecutively. With a grand smile and lots of laughter, he “lectured” us on the merits of Chairman Mao and all the recent economic progress in China. Since we were such good listeners, remaining curious about his proud political views, our last taxi ride ended with him taking a picture of us as his new friends. The list of individual people and specific conversations could go on and on.
Upon my return home, generally people inquire about the Great Wall, the terra cotta warriors, the food, etc. The real trip, however, was how this densely populated, vast nation became personal and intimate through the relationships of a single man, a Columban priest, with a missionary heart. What began as a tour of China became a personal encounter of China through a wide range of individuals. A trip of a lifetime!
Rev. Thomas A. Greisen is a Priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska.