After the Pope’s Letter
The open roads of the Celestial Empire
A journey through the churches of Beijing and Shanghai. Where the Christians also are coming to terms with new scenarios in a country launched towards the future and that must take the global recession into account. Among uncertainties, new opportunities and unexpected proximities
by Gianni Valente
A woman with her son praying in a Catholic church
Father John also lives near the prime minister. The church of Saint Michael, where he is pastor, is a few street numbers away from the compound that houses his important neighbor. He also has to dodge bicycles and vigilantes when he returns home drawn like the others into the anonymous bustle of the evening, one of the many. Yet one day, a few months ago, all eyes in China were for some moments focused on him. The Olympic torch had arrived in the capital, and he was one of the last torchbearers, those charged with carrying the Olympic flame for a few dozen meters through the streets of Beijing. When his turn came, without pausing to think, he took the occasion in his stride. He raised the torch before the celebrating city, and with that device – emblem of the new Chinese grandeur – he quickly traced the sign of the Cross in the air. The simplest gesture that came to his mind to show his affiliation to the immense section of the world hedging his short run.
Four hundred years ago, the great Jesuit Matteo Ricci had been impressed by the human greatness of the political design that sustained the Celestial Empire. He too, looking at the China of his time, had sought a point of correspondence, a minimal affinity, a familiar even if distant resonance that would enable the seeds of Christianity to be sown in that land and not be immediately rejected as a foreign body.
As then, again today, in the great transformation that China is going through, the experience of the Christians spread over the immense country passes through casual contiguities. Loopholes of gratuitous sympathy that the good Lord stirs among the peasants of Sichuan and the managers of Shanghai, university students with their designer clothing and fishermen of Fuzhou. And also among those who hold power.
A procession in front of the statue of Matteo Ricci in Beijing [© Associated Press/LaPresse]
At the National Seminary of Beijing, the parchment with the blessing of Benedict XVI hangs on the wall in a secluded but strategic position. You see it only if you come down the stairs leading from the church to the crypt. But, at least once a day, everyone goes by there. The almost eighty seminarians, the forty priests and fifteen nuns live a life cadenced by the timetables and discipline of a model seminary: wake up call at five-thirty, an hour of prayer, mass, breakfast, morning study, gymnastics, spiritual readings during meals until the evening meditation on the Gospel and the Fathers carried out in silence, all together, in the church. The life that flows in the seminary is a concentrate of all the paradoxes that mark the anomalous story of Chinese Catholicism. The information brochures make clear that the seminary is funded by the government and is under the auspices of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, the body through which the regime aims to ensure full alignment of the Church with its political leadership, interfering even in the selection of bishops. But then, priests and seminarians study, uncensored, the Code of Canon Law, including the canons where it is written that only the Pope “freely appoints bishops or confirms those that have been legitimately elected”. And if some of the few Chinese bishops consecrated without papal mandate are brought to visit the seminary, a vacuum is created around them and none of the priests go down to the chapel to say Mass with them.
More than a year after its publication, the Pope’s Letter to the Chinese Catholics still stirs ambivalent and paradoxical reactions. “For all of us,” says Father Joseph Jinde Lin, one of the spiritual directors in the seminary, “the Pope has spoken the final word on so many issues that were controversial for decades. The Letter tells us that there is no need to oppose those who govern us; now no one can say that those who converse with the government are not for that reason good Christians”. There are already a dozen – and requests of the kind are continuously increasing – seminarians from communities not registered with government agencies who have asked to continue their training at the National Seminary of Beijing, emerging from the more or less tolerated clandestinity in which their priestly vocation ripened: one of the many signs of the silent reconciliation that is slowly healing the wounds and dispelling the rancor within Chinese Catholicism between those who had already agreed to cooperate with the religious policies of the regime and those who refused its control over the life of the Church. The less enthusiastic reactions regarding the indications and suggestions contained in the Pope’s Letter – yet another paradox – occur among some isolated elements of the clandestine believers, who had perhaps for decades made obedience to the Pope the banner of their uncompromising loyalty to the Apostolic See. A hardening of position not always based on ideals. Some of the so-called “underground” priests live in conditions of paradoxical privilege: they administer unchecked the offerings for masses received from the faithful, enjoy donations from U.S. organizations that are against the Chinese government, move from diocese to diocese without too many constraints imposed by their superiors. But they are few in number – we are told at the Beijing Seminary – individuals who make a great deal of noise with their incoherent declarations on blogs, where they even write that the Pope was wrong or has been deceived. “The reconciliation of hearts, the thing that counts, has already begun”, Father John Tian of the church of Saint Peter in Shanghai assures us. “Even the underground community now recognizes that there is full communion of faith with Catholics who attend the “open” churches. They are often elderly people, who certainly do not go chatting on the Internet to criticize the Pope, to whom they are so devoted. Understanding and mercy must also be shown to them. Things will get solved with time and patience. If there is no forgiveness, others may not realize that Jesus is among us.” Meanwhile Father John’s parish is all topsy-turvy because of restoration work. But in the small room used as a chapel the Blessed Sacrament is always exposed, and there is always someone praying silently, without shoes, in front of the little statue of Mary Mystic Rose, the one with the three roses on her breast. Out there, Shanghai’s busy heart never breaks its tachycardiac rhythm.
The National Seminary of Beijing
The gurus of the International Monetary Fund go to Hong Kong and tell us to stay calm, because China, with its large currency reserves, will act as an anchor of stability for the whole world in the hurricane of global recession that will rage for the next two years. But Beijing does not trust the foreign financial alchemists too much. As early as the end of October toy factories started to shut down in Guangdong. Dozens closed, one after another, and the workers were sent home. “The factors counter to social stability will increase”, Wen Jiabao himself forecast in early November.
China is a locomotive racing toward the future. In recent years the country’s global rates of economic growth have been constantly in double figures. If it now derailed at full speed – everybody knows – the consequences would be devastating in every corner of the planet. The Chinese leadership faces problems of cyclopean dimensions, and it’s well to keep it in mind even when looking at the doings of the small flock of Chinese Catholics – between ten and twelve million, a drop in the ocean of a billion and three hundred thousand souls.
Over the past two years, with the ritual gradualism that distinguishes it, the Chinese leadership has taken interesting theoretical steps on the question of religion. In 2007, at the last Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the word “religion” was inserted in the constitution of the CCP. For the first time in the history of Communist China, even in the theoretical planning of political strategies, people practicing religion were recognized as a social model compatible with the country’s development model, analogous with ethnic minorities. Then, in late 2007, at the highest level, Hu Jintao himself rehabilitated the idea that religions can prove useful in building the harmonious society, a key-formula in the recent idiom of Chinese power: “We must unite the believers and religious figures present among the masses surrounding the party and the government, and fight along with them to build everywhere a prosperous society, while hastening the pace towards the modernization of socialism”, said the Chinese president at the conclusion of a Politburo study session devoted to the issue of religion. Because of this, before the Olympics, it seemed that the new theoretical scenario developed at the highest levels of the Chinese leadership could act with a domino effect and speed up the exhausting process of normalizing the complex relations between the Communist government, the Chinese Catholic Church and the Holy See. Then, with the Olympic excitement over, the signals coming from behind the Great Wall once again became rare and enigmatic (see box). The old still unresolved problems, such as the claims of government agencies to pilot the appointment of bishops, returned to the surface. But the context has changed and to really grasp how things stand it is better for everyone to take that into account.
The relationship between the Church and the Celestial Empire has always had its specific complications. Long before Mao the rulers of China always found it difficult to recognize that the Bishop of Rome was not a kind of universal spiritual monarch, and bishops around the world were not his mandarins. Now, as a further complicating factor, the “Catholic issue” is framed by Chinese officials in the context of the religious revival throughout the country: an articulated multifaceted phenomenon kept under control by the regime which in recent years, alongside the traditional “critical areas” – such as the Tibetan issue or that of the Uygurs, the restless Muslim population in Xinjiang – has focused its attention also on the impressive expansion of the fluid Evangelical Protestant galaxy. The militant Evangelical communities, linked more or less directly to the Free Churches of North American imprint, with their emotional miraculism are expanding their network of “house churches” at a rhythm and with methods difficult to monitor. Their untracked proliferation has certainly far exceeded the figure of 16 million adherents that the statistics of the regime attribute to the “historical” Protestant communities (Lutheran, Calvinist, Reformed). An exponential growth celebrated as a victory by the information centers active in the United States, such as the China Aid Association, which credits the unverifiable figure of 130 million Chinese already become “born again” Christians in the fierce house churches, presenting them all as potential activists in anti-government struggles on behalf of religious freedom and human rights.
For the present the return of the “religious factor” as a sociologically significant phenomenon is being closely scrutinized with caution by the upper levels of the Chinese leadership. The pro-government cultural bodies, such as the Academy of Social Sciences, have received explicit instructions from above to study the phenomenon. If the guiding criterion at the core of government policy is political stability and social cohesion the warning lights are ready to start flashing should any religious group aspire to a social and political impact incompatible with the new watchword of “harmonious society” and be perceived as an antagonistic force. And the level of alert can only heighten with the global recession that is also threatening the Chinese economic miracle.
It is no coincidence that recently the elusive network of evangelical house churches has now entered the sights of the police. And the uncertainties of the moment could, in part, explain the temporary décalage of communication in Sino-Vatican relations, in which the most controversial problem remains that of the appointment of bishops, with Chinese officials procrastinating and dodging away from compromise solutions acceptable to the Holy See. “If the government does not let go”, a young Chinese priest explained to 30Days, “it is also because they are accustomed to regard the bishop as a man of power, in a position to dictate the political line to the other baptized”. Thus, even in an anomalous and complex situation such as that of China, over-emphatic attention on the problem of episcopal appointments in the long run produces distorting effects. With young priests infected by a paradoxical careerism, “who spend their time forming systems of alliance and seeking ecclesial and even political backing to become bishops. And they lose sight of everything else”.
Chinese children in prayer [© Associated Press/LaPresse]
Joseph Xing must be tired if he drops off to sleep like a child on the short trip to Jiading, forty kilometers from Shanghai. He has just returned from the Holy Land, a pilgrimage made in the company of officials of the Office of Religious Affairs and jet lag is making itself felt. But in the Shanghai hinterland they are expecting him: he must celebrate more than a hundred confirmations and as all know he would never miss an appointment of the kind. Lining up to have their foreheads anointed there are old grandmothers hunched over by the years, fifty year-olds elegant in their carefully chosen new clothes, mothers with children in their arms. And lots and lots of boys and girls who approach the altar with a carefree air and young heart, like that of the urban and modern China whose children they are.
Nobody here takes seriously the fanciful theories of the North American intellectuals who see on the horizon a speedy conversion to Christianity by way of “culture” of more than half of the Chinese people. But it is a fact that in Beijing, Shanghai and some other Chinese megalopolises, thousands of baptisms of young people and adults are taking place each year in the Catholic churches. Some of them, singly, come upon the Christian life by chance, drawn by the more fortuitous and eye-catching attractions: the lights decorating the churches at Christmas, the organ music and the hymns heard while passing some parish church; or even the curiosity about who on earth this Saint Valentine might be whom lovers around the world celebrate on 14 February.
They don’t make speeches, they can’t explain what attracts them. For many, at first, it is just the thrill of having heard words of hope and promise that have touched their hearts, the same that the imported evangelicals rely on. “Once inside the church”, adds Father John, “there are other things that work their mystery: the liturgy, the stories of Jesus heard during the mass, the sight of people praying in silence, in total calm”. They know nothing of the great history of witness and martyrdom that has preserved the gift of faith in China, which might reach them effortlessly and without tension. Not least because of that, and in order not to scandalize their spontaneous liking as neophytes – everyone says – it’s time to bury the toxic wastes of the ecclesial conflicts of the past, and the newfangled careerism still feeding them.
For the rest, the ranks of priests and forty-year-old bishops who are taking the burden of responsibility in the Church of China have no clear idea of which way to turn. And the persistent restraints on the bond of communion with the Pope are only part of the puzzle they face. “Sooner or later, in one way or another,” says Father John again, “the normalization of relations between Beijing and the Vatican will come. But meanwhile, here everything is changing too quickly. The older witnesses are dying, we’re faced with a world in constant movement. We don’t know what to do”. The Chinese assimilation of global postmodernism is changing all the social and cultural paradigms of the past. And it is their lot to carry the name of Christ throughout the immense building site of China, just when the great Dragon is again changing its skin. With the temptation of feeling up to the occasion, devising strategies suited to the moment. And with the possibility of failing to realize that now, as always, it is enough for the Church to be itself to seize the opportunity as it passes,.
In his own way this is what the old vicar-general Ai Zuzhang wants to suggest to the young priests in Shanghai. He does so delicately, pointing again to his own story, while celebrating a Mass with them in memory of the four hundred year existence of the Shanghai diocese: “I was rich”, he says, “so rich that my family paid the servants to look after me even when I’d already become a priest. I had health problems, I didn’t know how to do anything, I didn’t know what work was. When I finished up in the re-education camps, I asked myself: how am I going to get through? But, then, instead it was the gift of God which did everything for me. Even my health improved ... The same thing could happen to you now, faced with the task that awaits you. The Lord will lay his hands on the future that you have before you”.