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China's Thriving Catholics: A Report From Beijing's South Cathedral | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | Ignatius Insight | August 20, 2008

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Editor's Note: Dr. Anthony Clark, assistant professor of Asian history at the University of Alabama, recently arrived in Beijing, China, to spent four months as director of the University of Alabama Chinese Language and Culture Program in the capital of China. During his time there, he will be writing a series of short articles for Ignatius Insight about Catholicism in China. The following piece was written just a few days after his arrival in Beijing. For more about Dr. Clark, see his bio at the end of this article.



While the world is focused on the Olympics here in China's capital, the faithful still gather in impressively large numbers to attend Mass at one of Beijing's most beautiful churches, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, popularly called Nantang (South Cathedral).

In his letter to Chinese Catholics (May 27, 2007), Pope Benedict acknowledged the remaining "tensions and divisions" within the Church in China, but he also notes that the so-called "Patriotic Catholic Association" bishops are nearly all in normal communion with the Holy See. While problems persist, it is quite evident that the Church in China is thriving, and that the faithful are presently able to practice their Catholic faith openly and piously.

The first Sunday Mass at the South Cathedral begins at the early hour of 6:00 am; it is celebrated according to the Extraordinary Rite, and burgeons with attendees who chant melodic Chinese responses to the priest, as the Chinese Catholics have for centuries. Another Mass follows at 7:00 am, celebrated in Chinese according to the Ordinary Rite, and then two Masses are offered in English. The Masses are all filled with vibrant faithful, both young and old.

Chinese Catholics at South Cathedral have their own distinctive devotions, centered on the Blessed Virgin Mary, who figures prominently above the stunning High Altar, and the great Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci. There are three statues within the courtyard of the Cathedral, one of Matteo Ricci, one of Mary, and another of St. Francis Xavier. As the faithful approach the church for Mass they first bow to Ricci, and then stop to pray in front of the popular statue of Our Lady, nestled in a grotto behind a streaming fountain. Finally, the faithful are greeted by a virtual army of volunteers who welcome each person with a smile.

This is Beijing's oldest Catholic church, first established in 1605 by Matteo Ricci, and the principle courtyard contains two imperial steles bestowed to the Jesuit Fathers of the church by the emperor himself. The first emperor of the Qing dynasty, Shuzhi, retained a close relationship the priests at the church, visiting it more than twenty-four times during his reign. When the cathedral was damaged by fire in 1775, Emperor Qianlong donated 10,000 taels of silver to pay for its reconstruction.

After the Opium Wars during the middle of the nineteenth century, the building was confiscated by the imperial government, but it was restored to the Church in 1890. Boxers burned the cathedral to the ground in 1900 at the height of the Boxer Uprising, but by 1904 the church was rebuilt. Today, this Baroque-style cathedral can barely hold the crowds that worship on this site of Matteo Ricci's small chapel, built over four centuries ago.

After Mass, I spoke with Father Liu, a warm and welcoming young priest, who announced casually that former restrictions concerning the Chinese Church's ties with the Vatican are happily consigned to the past. The religious articles store that opens after Mass sells books and images of the Holy Father, and business is good. Person after person welcomed me to the church after Mass, and then I was ushered away by the holy sound of the cathedral bells celebrating the divine mysteries just celebrated.

Despite the advances and relative freedom that Chinese Catholics enjoy today, as China basks in world attention during the Olympics, there remain uncomfortable signs of New China's rejection of religion under its official Communist structure. As I attempted to hail a cab to go to Mass at 5:30 a.m., drivers repeatedly told me that they did not know the address or place of the church, despite the fact that it is located in one of Beijing's most famous districts (Xuanwu), and just down the street from Tiananmen.

At last a rather eccentric taxi driver drove me to the church, being sure to tell me along the way, "Chinese people no longer believe in spirits." Most of the other drivers simply refuse to drive to a Christian church. In addition, when I sat down to write this report, all links from the Vatican's web page were blocked.

On one hand, I am quite free go to Mass along with the large crowds of other believers—that is, if I can find a cab. And I am free to mention and discuss the Pope with my fellow Catholics here in China—but I cannot access the Vatican website and Benedict XVI's official webpage. So there are still serious problems, yes, but during Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, those problems disappear for a while as the timeless mysteries of the faith are celebrated in the capital of China.



CLICK ON THUMBNAILS FOR LARGER IMAGES:



[Photos courtesy of Dr. Anthony Clark.]



Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:

Two Chinese Churches? Or One? | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
On Writing A History of Christianity in China | Preface to Christians In China: A.D. 600 to 2000 | Fr. Jean-Pierre Charbonnier
Two Weeks in the Eternal City: From the Vatican Secret Archives to the Basilica of St. Charles Borromeo | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.



Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. is assistant professor of Asian history at the University of Alabama.

He did his doctoral studies at the University of Oregon, where he studied Chinese history, philosophy, and religion. His more recent research has centered on East/West religious dialogue. He has also been researching the history of Catholic martyrs in China and has recently finished writing a book on that subject.

Dr. Clark has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and has also been a guest on "EWTN Live." and "Catholic Answers Live" to talk about Catholicism in China. He is also a contributing editor for This Rock magazine.



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