A Catholic (“Patriotic”) parish in China

The Holy Father spoke about religious liberty in his recent “state of the world” speech to the diplomatic corps.

I now want to draw your attention to an article in The Pilot, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston.

Think about what our brothers and sisters in China face.  This concerns a parish in China that belongs to the “Patriotic” Church, not the Church in union with Rome.  That said, there are some regions in China where relations are closer with Rome than in regions.  The situation is not uniform across China.

Christmas in Jilin
By Neil W. McCabe

Editor’s note: This report was filed by Pilot reporter Neil McCabe, currently on active duty with the U.S. Army, who made a trip to China while on leave during the Christmas Season.

Despite bracing cold, Chinese worshipers in Jilin City, a city in the region once known as Manchuria, marked the birth of our Savior at Masses celebrated at Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ Church, a majestic structure with its doors facing the mighty Songhua River.

Sacred Heart is the only Catholic church in the city of 4 million and its parish community has grown in recent years to more than 5,000 believers, said Father Guo Sheng “Joseph” Wang, a parochial vicar at the parish and the director of its social services ministry.

Father Wang said for Christmas there were three Masses: Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass and Christmas Day.

Because of harsh temperatures that reached only 10 degrees during the day and lows of 15 degrees below zero at night, Father Wang said the Masses could not be held in the unheated 1926-built church because of concerns for elderly worshipers. Instead, the Masses were held in the parish hall chapel.

At the Christmas Day Mass, the chapel was packed with more than 500 congregants, who crowded the pews, aisles and open areas in the back. There were also more than two dozen parishioners lined up at the confessional.

When it was built by French missionaries, Sacred Heart was the local cathedral because Jilin was then a provincial capital. In the 1994, the diocesan seat was moved to Changchun, the current capital of Jilin Province. During the Cultural Revolution, 1966 to 1976, the church was closed and damaged. In 1980, it was allowed to reopen as part of the officially recognized Catholic Church in China. [Not the "underground" Church.]

Beginning in the 1990s, the government has funded repairs to both the church building and the other parish buildings.

The church and its surrounding fenced-in campus comprise a rectory, a parish hall and a performance stage along with ancillary storage sheds. Across the street behind the church, there is a health clinic for seniors.

During his August 2010 visit to the China, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il took a short tour of the church, where he said his father once sought sanctuary from the Japanese authorities during the Second World War. It is also a short walk from the Yumen Middle School, the elite Marxist school his father attended.

Father Wang said he has been a priest in Jilin Province since 1997. He grew up in Jilin City and was raised in a Catholic family. As a young man he was pressured by his father and a friend of his father to study for the priesthood, but he always resisted. Finally, he attended a religious festival and was overcome with the feeling that in fact it was his calling to be a priest.

Although he continued to resist it, he prayed for six months until accepting his vocation and he said he was admitted to Jilin Seminary in a class of 13 seminarians.

Since his ordination, Father Wang has had four assignments. For his first three years, he taught at the seminary, before his three stints at country parishes. He began his tenure at Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ Church Jan. 28, 2008.

At the parish, Father Wang shares duties with three other priests. There are two American Maryknoll priests who teach at the city’s Bei Hua University. [With the Patriotic Church? Interesting.]

“Our social services ministry will mark its fifth year in operation in February,” he said. He is the second director. “The vision for Tianji Social Services is to promote a warm, loving, peaceful and harmonious community for everybody”

In addition to raising the profile of the city’s Catholic population, the priest said the program provides student scholarships, youth activities and a home visit ministry for the elderly, poor families and those struggling with HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

Father Wang said the Church in Jilin Province and in the city is growing, but not quickly. In the province itself, there are more than 40 individual houses of worship for roughly 80,000 Catholics.

One of the 5,000 parishioners of Sacred Heart is 70-year-old Maria Qiao, who said she was baptized five years ago.

“I had a friend who was a Catholic and she told me to come to the church with her and see how having a relationship with God could help me,” she said.  [Never underestimate the power of a simple invitation.]

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12 Responses to A Catholic (“Patriotic”) parish in China

  1. Ceile De says:

    I am no expert but I did attend Sacred Heart Cathedral in Guangzhou some 5 years ago and noticed they had a picture of Pope Benedict in the foyer. Last week, I went back, and noticed there is no picture of the Pope although the intercessory prayers included a prayer for “the Holy Father” but not by name. Also, maybe I didn’t notice before, but the pews were full of Protestant Bibles. It felt more subdued than last time.
    Two young people manned the doors and were very enthusiastic about handing out leaflets on why one should be a Christian and explaining in very basic terms what Christianity is about. That part was impressive.
    The cathedral was restored with state money and seems to be a ‘show piece’ now – I could not see enough to gauge a better view of the situation.
    Three years ago I went to Mass in Shanghai where no one sat in the front three rows except one man (presumably from the Party) in the front row ostentatiously writing down notes during the priest’s sermon. Even know, Guangzhou does not seem quite as stifling as Shanghai.
    And yet for all this the Churches (‘Patriotic’ or not) seemed more Catholic than the two English Masses my wife and I attended in Tokyo last year – they seemed to be in competition to see which could ignore the Tabernacle more and commit more liturgical abuses in depressing and ugly surroundings. Only Vespers at the Orthodox Cathedral in Japanese and Old Church Slavonic cheered us up.
    (Off topic I know, but I attended Italian Mass yesterday at St Joseph’s in downtown Cairo. There were three police outside the gates but there were only a dozen or so people attending Mass in what is quite a big church. I don’t know if number are down after the dreadful outrages against the Copts).
    We really have it easy in the US and Europe. Something I didn’t properly appreciate until now.

  2. EoinOBolguidhir says:

    “There are two American Maryknoll priests who teach at the city’s Bei Hua University. [With the Patriotic Church? Interesting.” I had known a Maryknoll father who worked in mainland China, and while there he could only teach. As foreign missionaries, they are allowed no missionary activities, and can only teach the subject in which they have trained. They can’t wear clerical dress, either. So if he’s there teaching, he’s only teaching, and he’s not working with the Patriotic association. I don’t know anything about the underground Church there, nor, of course, would those priests.

  3. J Kusske says:

    Yes indeed, the Maryknollers have been in Jilin for quite a while now. When I was in Shenyang 2002-2003 one of them had recently come down from there to start up a new effort. He had been in Korea before that. The Shenyang English mass was created in 2002 thanks to him being on hand to help with masses. I am sure the situation in Jilin is the same: when the climate permits, the American priest says mass, but sometimes things get more touchy so he has to lay low for a while and the Chinese priest takes over. The Chinese leader of the community in Shenyang is a good and faithful man, and I hope the one in Jilin is as well: loyal to the Pope, and no friend of the central authorities in Beijing. I visited Jilin this past October and stopped by the church, but I didn’t have a chance to go to mass there–it’s a lovely church, and I am sure a good faithful community. I hear there is also a Marian shrine up there, that the Maryknoll priest was talking about from his time in Jilin. Besides the Chinese community, there are also a good number of Korean Catholics in Northeast China, so I am sure Jilin has its share too. When one gets over near the border in the ethnic Korean areas, there are a number of quiet religious missions some Orders have in Yanji Korean Autonomous Area (outreaches from South Korea).

  4. Traductora says:

    Interesting post, Ceile De. Vatican II really hit Asia badly, and I have always wondered how different Asia would be now if the Church had remained the Church and the Mass had remained the Mass (please, hold your horses folks, I’m not saying the Novus Ordo is invalid, simply that it was a major change and was not like the old mass). When my non-Asian, Catholic husband was stationed in Japan, he ended up going to the Orthodox liturgies too, because the Catholic masses were so awful and somehow…trivial.

  5. PM says:

    The distinction between the Patriotic and underground Church is no longer as sharp as it once was. “Underground” must be understood as a term of art: it means remaining outside the Catholic Patriotic Association and affirming loyalty to the Pope; but it is should not be understood as meaning secret. It is also said that a majority of priests and bishops in the “official” Church now accept the administrative authority of the Pope as well as his doctrinal authority (which some claim, I don’t know with what degree of truth, the official Church never disputed). The 2007 Papal letter to Chinese Catholics reiterates that the official Church is not schismatic, and that the sacraments it confers, while illicit, are valid. Most of the “official” bishops (the conventional figure is 90 percent) have also asked for and received papal approval. There has, apparently, been a kind of unofficial deal between the Holy See and the Chinese state. In one version Rome typically proposes names of potential bishops (and must propose more than one name) and the state makes its selection among them.

    The major controversy now, I think, is over the status of the Patriotic Association itself (which is in principle if not always in practice distinct from the Church proper). The 2007 letter has been construed as allowing priests and bishops who already are members of the Patriotic Association to remain so. The controversy is whether those active in the underground Church may join the Patriotic Association, and they are under regime pressure to do. While the 2007 letter was welcomed by the underground Church, its very magnanimity toward those who had cooperated with the regime has perhaps worked against those who have stood firm. In the past couple of years there have been not overly subtle signals from some circles in Rome and perhaps from circles in American Catholicism concerned with China that the underground Catholics should get with the program and stop setting up obstacles to “reconciliation.”

    And the position of the Chinese state has also hardened, perhaps because it senses (rightly or wrongly) that it has the upper hand. So this past December, for the first time in many years, the regime imposed an illicit episcopal ordination; and the reaction from the Vatican includes the complaint that the Beijing regime has unilaterally violated what had been a tacit accommodation.

  6. Ceile De says:

    Traductora
    Thanks for your kind words.
    Japanese Catholicism is in an awful state – it seems to have retained the worst of ‘avant garde’ German and theology and we left both Masses unspeakably depressed.
    Th amazing thing is that Japanese culture is perfectly suited to the Extraordinary Form – the Japanese value learning formality over years – look at their crafts and martial arts. Many Japanese women still wear mantillas (the Masses we attended were ‘ex pat’ shows (and I use the term advisedly) in English).
    Although she seems to be an SSPX member, it is worth looking at http://mirandammartin.blogspot.com/ – scroll down to hr post on Taiwan. It is the same in Japan.

  7. Dr. Eric says:

    The family who owned the restaurant in my hometown were from Jilin.

    They also gave me a Chinese name, the surname being “Wang” (a play on words as Wang is similar to the first syllable of my surname and is a cognate to Eric.) The priest in the story also has Wang as his surname.

    I love China, the food, the history, and the medicine; but the current government…

  8. Faith says:

    Didn’t Russia have two similar churches: official state, and an underground? Then later, they merged? I pray for the two Chinese church to be one, some day.

  9. PostCatholic says:

    I happen to know one of the Maryknoll priests who works in China. Working with the Patriotic Church (at least 8 years ago, when I saw him last) was a way to put himself in a community of Catholic believers and let the word quietly spread to the faithful that he was a “real” priest who could minister to them the “real” sacraments.

  10. albizzi says:

    I only knew of a catholic church in Hong Kong in 1998 just before HK was taken back by the mainland China. If I remember wel it was on the island and was founded by a French Jesuits mission before WWI. It was mainly attended by Philippines catholics who are many in HK
    Of course, there was no distinction between¨Patriotic” and “Underground” catholic churches. And probably it remained so due to the current special status of HK.
    Any way, we must remember that the case was similar during the French Revolution. There were priests who accepted to swear obedience and fidelity to the Revolution and a number who declined to swear. These last ones were obliged to hide and worked in the underground. Many were taken and beheaded or martyred. True catholics never acknowledged the “swearer” priests and took huge risks to hide them.
    In fact, although I don’t intend to throw the first stone to anyone, cannot we consider that the “Patriotic” Church is in schism? While the true Church is the Underground one. And this last one is currently persecuted and martyred every day.

  11. J Kusske says:

    I don’t want to throw stones either, as the situation is more complex and difficult than splitting into good vs. evil camps, but I can say that there are plenty of priests in the official churches who preach against government domination from the pulpit, as I have heard them myself. One of them was talking about the priest in Fujian who was arrested for holding illegal catechism classes (that Father Z was mentioning here back in January or February). That priest was from Shanxi Province, a place noted for the vibrant state of the Church and the effectual lack of a division between official and underground branches. If one is in Beijing of course the situation is something else again.