Catholics in China Long for Connections to Vatican

Beijing regulates local churches, preventing papal inspiration from reaching worshipers.

By Ching-Ching Ni

Los Angeles Times

April 24, 2005

BEIJING — It's 6 in the morning. The traffic on normally congested streets is still at a trickle. But parishioners are already seated in the pews of the oldest Roman Catholic Church in the Chinese capital.

For these mostly elderly worshipers, it's a daily ritual. But on this day, they are extra-eager to reach the church on time. They want to find out about the new pope. Like many in China's Communist Party-sanctioned churches here, they know next to nothing about Benedict XVI, the most important person in the Catholic world.

"I can't remember his name because the priest only mentioned it once, and I missed it," Meng Xianwu, 83, a retired department store clerk in a faded blue Mao jacket, said as he left church Thursday.

"They definitely should have told us more about him, at the very least, write his name on the blackboard so we can see it," said his wife, Xiao Mingying 74.

It's no surprise that information in China about the new Catholic leader is scant. The Communist Party broke off diplomatic ties with the Holy See and expelled all foreign clerics when it came to power five decades ago. The late Pope John Paul II, who preached the gospel in Eastern Europe and earned a reputation as the pope who helped topple communism, was held in particular disdain by Beijing, which never allowed him to set foot in China.

Relations are very strained because the Vatican is the only state in Europe that still recognizes Taiwan. China considers the island part of its territory.

To underscore the political strife, virtually no state media covered the naming of the new pontiff. The China Daily, the English-language government newspaper designed primarily for foreign consumption, ran a two-sentence brief, without a photo and below an item about the importance of controlling steel industry investments.

That's life for Catholics in China. Before capitalist reforms were initiated more than two decades ago, even going to church was out of the question.

"During the Cultural Revolution, we had to burn our Bibles and bury our crosses," said Li Chunxiu, 70, referring to Mao Tse-tung's 1966-76 campaign to strengthen socialist ideology.

Like many of her fellow parishioners, she has learned to live with the pope as more or less an abstract concept. Her greatest hope is for that to change.

"John Paul II had said he wanted to normalize relations with China. I pray the new pope can make that a reality," Li said. "It's very important for us. We want to follow the pope's direct leadership."

Nantang, or Southern Cathedral, is a gray stone church built by Italian missionaries during the 16th century. It stands just southwest of the imposing Tiananmen Square and was last rebuilt about 100 years ago.

The insides of the long, vaulted chapel have the feel of a Catholic church inside a Buddhist temple. Large vertical red banners with square yellow Chinese characters float from high pillars that stand in stark contrast to the familiar stained-glass windows depicting the life and teachings of Christ.

The flags look like Buddhist scriptures or revolutionary slogans. But they praise the Lord and Virgin Mary. Kneeling parishioners fill the chapel with long stretches of prayers sung in Chinese with a rhythm similar to Buddhist chants.

When Nantang reopened to the public in 1979, it was the only place where Catholics could worship in Beijing. Attendance was reportedly less than 100 people per service.

Since then, religion has witnessed a renaissance. Young people in particular have turned to spirituality to fill a void left by the decline of Maoist ideology. As many as 2,000 worshipers now crowd the pews during four Sunday Masses. Many more flock to a handful of other Catholic churches around the city.

"Our membership has been growing every year. About 90% of them are young people. Some are only a few days old. We baptize them at home," said Father Zhao Jianmin, 42, a sixth-generation Catholic. His father was a metalsmith who hid a bronze statue of Christ in their home when it was considered counter-revolutionary to believe in God.

Official figures put the country's Catholic population at 5 million. The Holy Spirits Study Center in Hong Kong says the true number is closer to 12 million. Until the differences between the Vatican and Beijing are settled, Chinese followers will never become part of the global Catholic community.

Official churches like Nantang fall under the leadership of the Communist Party through an organization called the China Patriotic Catholic Assn. The Chinese government, not the Vatican, approves the appointment of bishops. For Beijing, to let the Holy See select them would be to let it meddle in China's internal affairs.

As a result, a large underground church based in private homes has flourished, particularly in the countryside. Unofficial church leaders are often subject to arrest and harassment for not forsaking their allegiance to Rome.

Few believe that Beijing will embrace the Vatican anytime soon. But Chinese Catholics are used to it.

"Politically we may not have contacts with the Vatican, but as a follower of the church we recognize the pope as the head of the household," said Sister Catherine Dai Jing, 34, a nun here who is a third-generation Catholic. "He is our parent, our spiritual leader."

Dai's grandmother was raised by French missionaries after she was found abandoned in Southern China's Yunan province. Her five children went to church schools and passed on the faith to their children.

But the church was shut down and turned into a day care center during the early days of Communist rule. It was refurbished and reopened to worshipers in the late 1990s.

Her grandmother passed away without ever again stepping into a house of worship. But she made sure her grandchildren knew about God.

"She used to tell us Bible stories and the birth and rebirth of Christ," said Dai, who hadn't seen a church building until she came to Beijing in 1992.

Parishioner Wang Ying, 50, is a retired worker in a plastics factory. She was a teenager when her whole family was sent to the countryside because her uncle was a priest and her aunt a nun.

"All religious life ended during the Cultural Revolution," she said. "Even then, my grandmother never stopped praying. Every morning and every night, I could hear her whisper her prayers."

The 84-year-old woman's dying wish was to touch her rosaries again, Wang said. Now Wang takes her sixth-grade daughter to church on weekends. It doesn't bother her that she can tell her very little about the new pope or his ideas. Nor does she feel the distance from Rome and the millions who flocked to St. Peter's Square to witness history or at least watch it on TV.

"I still live in a communist country and I know the party's job is to publicize communism, not Catholicism," Wang said. "But religion has no borders. We believe in the same God. I may not be able to go to Rome to say goodbye to the old pope or welcome the new pope, but my heart was there. That's faith."