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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
Editor's Note: Dr. Anthony Clark, assistant professor of Asian history at the University of Alabama, recently arrived in Beijing, China, to spend 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
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
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.]
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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
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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