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from issue no. 07/08 - 2005

There's something new in Shanghai too

A journey among the Christians of the symbol city of the new China, among the memories of those who testified to the faith in the persecution and the defenseless new beginning of those who become Christian today. While the new auxiliary bishop nominated by the Pope is ordained with the approval of the government …

by Gianni Valente

The Cathedral of Saint Ignatius in Zikawei, as it is now and as it appeared in the 'Twenties of last century

The Cathedral of Saint Ignatius in Zikawei, as it is now and as it appeared in the 'Twenties of last century

The new bishop Joseph has the face of ‘a good boy’ and moves about the altar carrying his purple zucchetto with the timid steps of a beginner, almost asking permission. At seven in the morning, the whirling ventilators hanging from the roof of the Cathedral of Saint Ignatius already fail to move the heavy, humid air of Shanghai’s summer anymore. Before the mass, all recited the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross on their knees. Some delay at the entrance, before the bookstall with the stories of the saints above which a panel is pitched with the megaposter of Pope Benedict. In the chapel behind the altar there is always a line of those who light candles and kneel down before the picture of Wojtyla. And this Sunday Jesus in the Gospel recounts and explains the parable of the sower. The seed that falls on rocky ground is like the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, but «as soon as tribulation or persecution comes because of the word he immediately falls away». That sown among the thorns «is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word and it proves unfruitful». That sown on good soil «that is he who hears the word and understands it;he indeed bears fruit and yields in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty». The morning of 28 June, in this same Cathedral – and that day it was even hotter, so much so that in order to keep the multitude of five thousand people who had come cool, they had distributed enormous blocks of dry ice along the naves – Joseph Xing Wenzhi became the first Chinese to be ordained bishop during the new pontificate of Pope Ratzinger. Pope John Paul had nominated him before dying. Then, the majority of diocesan representatives had «voted » him – priests, nuns, the laity of the diocese of Shanghai. Afterwards, the Peking government had «approved» him. Finally his ninety year-old bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, head of the diocese of Shanghai since ’85 with the recognition of the government but – up until now – without the approval of the Holy See, made him successor of the apostles by the laying on of hands in the liturgy of episcopal ordination. He is the great “director” of his own complicated succession, where all the controversial and anomalous happenings of the Church in China in the last 55 years mingle and join at a point of development. Because Shanghai, for the creation of a bishop, is certainly not a place like any other.

The mandarin Xu Guangqi, powerful friend of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, donated the lands around the Cathedral, now cultivated by skyscrapers and electronic megastores, to the Church from the beginning of the 17th century, after having been baptized. Still today the Xujiahui quarter – Zikawei in Shanghai dialect – takes its name from Xu’s family. Here the Jesuits from midway through the 19th century had raised their Christian citadel in the suburbs of what was already then a large cosmopolitan metropolis. With the Cathedral, the seminaries, the astronomic observatory. What was then the residence of the fathers is now the Zikawei library, and the ancient refectory now serves as a reading room. What was then the house of the sisters, now hosts a restaurant for the rich, on the other side of Puxi Road. Here in Zikawei, Father Zhang Boda worked as rector of Saint Ignatius College, the first Jesuit martyr who died as a counter- revolutionary prisoner in the prisons of Mao already in Novemebr of ’51. Here in Zikawei the Maoist strategy for annihilating the Chinese Church by separating it from visible communion with the successor of Peter achieved one of its most dramatic effects. Because the diocese of Shanghai and its bishop Ignatius Gong Pinmei were a symbol for the whole immense country, the stronghold of Catholic resistance to the project of the Communist Party to create a national Church of the regime that would renounce every bond with the Apostolic See, identified with the Vatican «imperialist center». The layman Simon He, now 71 and then just finished middle school, has also not been able to forget that night of 8 September ’55: «The police surrounded all the religious buildings. The rounding up lasted all night and the next day. They arrested more than four hundred people, all those most notable in the diocese: Bishop Gong, all of his closest priest collaborators, and almost all the laity enrolled in the Legion of Mary, with the accusation that they were a paramilitary group in the pay of capitalist powers. They gathered another thousand into the minor seminary, and they worked there for three years, with brain washing sessions on socialism and against the imperialist Vatican». Decapitated of its leaders and a good part of its pastors, the Shanghai Church lived for years in a limbo of uncertainty. Until when, half way through the ’Sixties, the dark night of the Cultural Revolution fell here also as in all of China. «The seminary» Simon recalls «became a hospital. The nuns became workers in their former house transformed into an umbrella factory. They requisitioned or closed all the churches. We continued to pray, closing ourselves at home. Zikawei Cathedral also went to ruin. The Red Guards broke the stained glass windows, damaged the roof and steeples. But the rest remained standing».

Since then everything seems changed. Whoever goes to Zikawei today finds a church like all the others, attended in complete freedom by Christians who don’t anymore need to hide themselves to say prayers and make communion. Beside the Cathedral they have recently inaugurated the new Episcopal palace and the ten floor high residence for priests, on which the marble statues of the four evangelists soar. And yet, underneath the appearance of ordinary ecclesial life, the years of great tribulation have left wounds that are still open deep down in the Shanghai Church.
Fifty years ago, the young Jesuit Aloysius Jin and his religious brother Joseph Fan Zhongliang were among the closest collaborators of Bishop Gong Pinmei, they too arrested on the night of the great roundup. Their bishop trusted them both: he had made the first one rector of the major seminary, and gave charge of the minor one to the second. In 1954, feeling the hurricane approach, those two also, along with all the priests of the diocese of Shanghai, went up to their bishop at the sanctuary of Our Lady of Sheshan to swear that they would not betray the faith, with the help of the Virgin. The terrible years of the Cultural Revolution over, after almost five five-year periods in prison, Jin and Fan were also freed, as happened in that same period, the early years of the ’Eighties, to thousands of priests, religious and faithful. The China of Deng Xiaoping reopened the churches, invited priest, nuns and bishops to resume their own work, even if in a regime of strict political surveillance. It was then that the paths of the two Jesuits divided.
Jin accepted to become rector of the seminary, and indeed in ’85 auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, with the permission of the Peking government but without that of the Pope in Rome, while old Gong Pinmei, legitimate titular of the episcopal see, remained in a regime of probationary freedom. Fan, instead, refused all collaboration with the “patriotic” associations that the regime imposed as instruments of control over the life of the Church. In ’85 he too was ordained bishop clandestinely, and the Vatican recognized him as the unique legitimate successor of Ignatius Gong Pinmei. The dixia community, the “underground” faithful who continued to say rosaries and to celebrate mass closed in private houses, keeping away from the churches that reopened one by one under the control of the government, gathered around Fan, feeling themselves confirmed by Rome in their choice of inflexible resistance. They were the “faithful Church”, those who in full fidelity to the successor of Peter had rejected all compromise with the separatist line that the regime wished to impose on Chinese Catholics. Jin, his curia and his priests were traitors, usurpers, puppets in the hands of the regime. They were the troublemakers in the field of the Lord.
Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian places the Bible on the head of Joseph Xing Wenzhi during his episcopal ordination which took place on 28 June last

Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian places the Bible on the head of Joseph Xing Wenzhi during his episcopal ordination which took place on 28 June last

Now Bishop Fan is ill with Alzheimer’s, he passes his days without memory in the apartment where for twenty years the regime has tolerated his “illegal” activities, controlling him by sight and limiting his freedom of movement. The news was communicated to the underground community: the Holy See will not recognize any other clandestine bishop for the Church of Shanghai. When Jin Luxian retires, the only legitimate pastor for all the Catholics of Shaghai, and for them also, to follow will be his successor Joseph Xing, recognized by the Peking government.
It would seem a paradox of ecclesiastical ingratitude. The Roman Curia that turns its back on those who have paid most for their fidelity to the Pope and makes deals with those who chose to compromise with the persecutors. In reality, the episcopal ordination of Shanghai clarifies the real contours of the intricate events of Chinese Christianity in the last fifty years. And gives the lie forever to the misleading theories according to which there were two Churches in China, one faithful to the Pope and the other to the Party.
In recent years in Rome also they had understood that neither did Jin betray the oath made in ’54, before Our Lady of Sheshan. The canonical hazard whereby he accepted to become bishop without the permission of the Pope exposed him for years to the accusation of being a schismatic. But time revealed that he too, as the majority of bishops ordained illegitimately in those years in China, never really thought of it as the national “self-governing” Church cherished by the propaganda of the regime. In the shadow of those slogans, it had to do with the faint openings conceded by the regime to the resumption of ecclesial life. And with favoring the continuity if the ecclesial institutions and the administration of the sacraments necessary for the life of the faithful, in broad daylight. Because of this, already in the early ’Eighties, the majority of them sent by secret means their request to the Apostolic See to be recognized as legitimate bishops in order to regularize their own status from the canonical point of view.
In Shanghai, the fruits gathered in these years of “normal” diocesan life – new churches constructed all over the city, avantgarde seminaries, printing presses that publish Gospels for all of China, professional schools, the re-launching of the association of Catholic intellectuals, links with Catholic universities and institutions throughout the world – also speak for themselves. «Ecclesia Catholica una est, also in China» says Father Joseph Lu smilingly, who has studied in the USA, leads two parishes in the center and has now asked for the visa to come to Europe and hopefully drop into Cologne, as chance would have it around 20 August, when the Pope will be there. «We and those of the clandestine churches are two faces of the same coin. Formerly some brother of the “underground” communities said of us of the “open” churches that we would go to hell. But for some time now I haven’t heard that. It will take time. But following the same pastor, sooner or later reconciliation will come. And it will be they who will come out into the open and attend the open churches. At this point, we certainly can’t become clandestines! Also because there is no need. If there are the open churches, why hide yourself in a house to say mass. At least here in Shanghai, there’s no need to be heroes anymore».

The Shanghai without heroes anymore is that decadent Liberty one that still shows itself off well at the Bund, along the left bank of the Huangpu, where the stone buildings in European style now house prestigious restaurants and representative centers of the Chinese financial giants. It is the intellectual and pleasure seeking one that passes its evenings euphoriant in the New Heaven and Earth, the artificial quarter with the buildings reconstructed like the houses of the early 20th century, among Italian restaurants, French strippers, Latin American music, German beer and design laboratories of the new Shanghai art. But it is especially the financial heart of the megalopolis that beats with tachycardiac rhythms in Pudong, on the other side of the river. The immense area where the extreme capitalism that causes convulsions to post-communist China is incarnated in a mammoth urban planning project. There, on the periphery of the financial heart of all of Asia, the poor Church of Jesus Christ is represented by Father John Gong and his thousand parishioners of the Immaculate, the new church inaugurated in May. A defenseless seed, among the glass block skyscraper structures and the super protected residential complexes of the new rich. Where, faced with the new times, it is not rare that a thread of unconfessed nostalgia for the epoch of heroic Christian witness, now over, flowers.
Father John also, who every morning here reads the breviary and then celebrates the Eucharist for the fifty faithful who are daily mass-goers, was among the young seminarians who after the roundup of ’55 had to put up with three years of “re-educative” lessons on socialism and the Vatican plots given by the Maoists in the Zikawei seminary. Then, for thirty years, he waited for the storm to pass, remaining faithful to his youthful promise. He did not marry, in ’87 he re-entered the Sheshan seminary, the first to re-open in the years of the Dengian openness. He became a priest only in ’90, at the fine age of 52. But now that he already sees the China of tomorrow from the privileged observatory of Pudong, things don’t add up for him. «When the persecution was about to arrive, Bishop Gong Pinmei warned us to keep ourselves ready. Pray the Lord, he said, that He may help you to keep the faith, which is the only treasure. Today it seems that no one is aware of this treasure anymore. They all think of making money, they even work twelve hours a day. For the young, also those of Christian families, the stories of those who kept the faith in those difficult years are things past. The heart of men can also forget the greatest past».

A Station of the Cross recited by the faithful before Sunday mass

A Station of the Cross recited by the faithful before Sunday mass

In the West journalists of remarkable fantasy forecast an imminent explosion of Christian spirituality in China, as a religious corollary to the widespread consumerist standardization in act in the Chinese world. If it is so, nothing yet allows a glimpse of it to be caught in the satisfied and curious faces of the multitudes that swarm in Shanghai continuously, swept away by the exhausting neo-consumerist liturgies of the megalopolis that knows no rest. Maybe they wear the cross on their neck in imitation of some local rapper. But they certainly know nothing of the ejaculatory prayers sung in Latin in the lagers, of the Patriotic Associations, of the government that spies, much less of twenty years of fraternal rancor between the “underground” Christians and those of the “open” churches.
Even Teresa knew nothing about it. When she was a child in Peking, her parents, communist functionaries, certainly did not talk to her about it. Also because they were never there, caught up as they were by their political career in Mongolia. Then she met a Christian friend, began to attend the churches, received baptism at twenty-five years old. She recounts that when asked what Christian name she had chosen, she answered that she wanted that of the prettiest saint. «The god-mother looked at me askance, but then she gave me a present of a book about the life of Teresa of Lisieux … when I went abroad, a foreign priest asked me if I were part of the “underground” Church. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I replied that in China I didn’t know any churches built underground, I hadn’t ever seen any in the underground stations …». Now she moves with ease in the neo-hedonist rhythms of Shanghai. She likes to stay out late in the atelier of the artists, or to discover new restaurants to then take her friends to. But it is indeed she who is drawing the Gospel scenes and the Chinese symbols for the stained glass windows of Zikawei Cathedral. The same that were once destroyed by the stones of the Red Guards. The seminarians also, the young priests and the nuns who meet in the parish of Saint Peter’s before dispersing throughout Shanghai to hold summer courses in catechism, don’t seem to occupy themselves too much with imaginary Christian conquests that should find an open field in the spiritual desert of the Chinese megalopolises. But neither do they curse the satiated and by no means desperate consumerism of their contemporaries. «These are the times we live in», says Anthony Zhao, spreading his arms, who is finishing theology in Sheshan seminary and who also followed the retreat of four days organized by the diocese at the beginning of July to study the methods «of how to communicate the faith in an attractive manner to young boys and girls, youths, and adults to whom we go to give catechism». Knowing well that, as happens to the poor devils who witness Jesus Christ in the work fields, it will not be the good intentions and the carefully measured human stratagems that will make the beginning of faith blossom or that protects its perseverance. That in China, as everywhere, today also, the small remainder who bear the name of Christ is a helplessness protected by Another.
This is perhaps also the consolation of the new bishop Joseph Xing when he imagines the adventurous years that await him: it will not be his skills or his suitability nor even his errors or limitations that decide whether and how the seed of Christian joy spread in the Chinese earth, after having borne fruit even in the storms of persecution, will dry up or can miraculously take root, one by one, in the busy hearts of the men and women of this immense city full of lights.

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