Celebrating Faith in China
It would be a disservice to truth for me not to acknowledge that there have been and are serious challenges for religious and civil society in China from sections of the State as well as the ever increasing lures of consumerism. But my sense is that too much Catholic media time is given to negative stories about China. Hence my purpose here is to advert to, rejoice with and celebrate some of the Good News that can be found everywhere in the Chinese Catholic Church.
Yes, the communists confiscated the Church in 1949, but it was returned in 1992. Now, in May 2016, the tallest Church in China was opened by Bishop Joseph Xu Honggan, Suzhou Diocese, under protection of Mary and in the presence of visiting bishops, fifty priests and 6,000 faithful from local and neighboring provinces.More than 3,000 baptisms were celebrated during the Easter period in the Catholic churches of China, with an expected 100,000 for the whole year. The Catholic population has increased from four million to what is believed to be about fifteen million today. The vast majority of these, 30,000, were young adults, many university students.
Protestantism has a similar, if not greater intake, and the turn to other religions also is overwhelming. Traveling on a plane one day, I engaged in a stimulating conversation on matters secular with a woman who told me that she was the senior member of the communist party in her home city. At that time, I didn’t share too easily with people who I really was, using the cover of “teacher.” After a lull in the conversation I decided, for my first time in China with a stranger, to share that I was Catholic missionary priest. There was an ominous silence for a moment and then she turned and said to me: “I wish to share something too with you: I am, as I told you, a senior member of the party, but I am now in the fourth stage of becoming a Buddhist.” The conversation took a new and deeper turn.
Scholars in China throughout history have played a very significant role in the state and the Chinese imperial court. Today, a priest in Beijing publishes a yearly journal of Catholic Studies, circulated to about 2,000 individuals and academic institutions. This gives wide distribution to the best of Catholic theological scholarship from abroad but also from that presently developing within China. Each year he convenes about 80 young academics for a three day study on Catholic theology; about one third would be Catholic/Protestant, the remainder young academics, searching for meaning in life, and interested in religions and especially in Catholic faith. Each has to write a paper on some aspect of Catholic theology to be accepted to the course.
There are more institutes for the study of religion in China than in all of the U.K. and Ireland. Atheism is being pushed, but a counterforce is also present in these scholars and especially in the thirst among the young for a truth to fulfil their lives in a manner that they know expensive things and fast sports cars cannot. I have about 50 internet correspondents arising from conversations with young people, on trains and buses who speak English, and are aware of my identity. The quality of these conversation on both human and transcendent truth outmatches anything I have ever experienced here in Europe.
China, because of its recent history, has become a place of which to be afraid. But as Bishop McMahon reminded us at a recent conference, Pope Francis has set the tone for our relationship with China. Pope Francis referred to China “…. as a great country. But more than a country, a great culture with inexhaustible wisdom.” The Pope invites us to dialogue with China, not to confront or condemn. He is clear that “dialogue does not mean we end up with compromise.”
We have a penchant in Europe for nursing bad news, but not so for many in China who suffered greatly. A very old bishop told me that the peak moment of his ministry came when a young Sister came to him asking to bless her dream for a contemplative monastery. I asked him why he said yes to such an enormous challenge in present circumstances. He replied: “I spent 25 years in jail and 10 in solitary confinement, and had nothing else to do but contemplate. I knew what she was talking about!” Out of what would be described as a “death” situation by many people, for him came a resurrection moment to which he could not have responded with out his previous experience.
Chinese people are no more perfect than we are, but in all the people I have met in China, old and young, the truth of St. Paul is manifest, “I live, no not I but Christ lives in me.” A profound moment of evidence for this truth was when a retired teacher, in an exchange between our visiting British delegation and a group of Catholic women, shared that she suffered greatly during the Cultural revolution. “All I had to do was deny my faith,” she said, “and I could go home.” On being affirmed for her great courage by one of the bishops in our group, she simply said “no, it was not due to me, but to the prayers of the universal Church and the power of God within me.”
Columban Fr. Eamonn O’Brien lives and works in Britain.