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A Visit to China's Largest Catholic Village | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | July 12, 2010 | Ignatius Insight

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Editor's Note: Dr. Anthony E. Clark, Assistant Professor of Asian History at Whitworth University (Spokane, Washington), has been traveling and researching in China this summer. The following was written in Shanghai on July 8, 2010.

Traveling through China's poorer provinces one often sees blue coal trucks, mule-driven carts brimming with freshly harvested vegetables, squatting peasants smoking long-stemmed pipes, or dilapidated roadside hovels with exposed light bulbs hanging precariously from crumbling ceilings. Occasional pavilions or temples might be seen, though these were largely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Catholic churches suffered two major periods of destruction, the Boxer Uprising (1898-1900) and the Cultural Revolution. The anti-foreign Boxers, called the Fists of Righteous Harmony, swept through China's northern provinces attacking churches and Christians, and when the Red Guards were told to destroy the "four olds" – old ideas, old customs, old habits, and old culture – they attacked not only anything that seemed traditional, but also anything that was foreign or religious. Being old, traditional, foreign, and religious, Catholic churches, orphanages, seminaries, and hospitals suffered widespread destruction through the Maoist era.

Despite these two historical events Chinese Christianity has grown at a meteoric rate in recent decades, swelling from around four million faithful in 1949 to over fifty million today. The current government has behaved quite openly to this growth compared to its previous intolerance, though the situation in China remains unsteady, and present signs suggest increased control over Catholic activities by the central authorities. Surveillance cameras monitor church entrances and the Religious Affairs Bureau has become more rigid in its stance against Roman "interference" in Church affairs in China. Papal authority, abortion, and the election of bishops continue to be sensitive topics, though the level of intensity of these conflicts differs from province to province.

One of the most astounding Catholic success stories in China is the village of Liuhecun, located an hour's drive outside of the economically poor capital city of Shanxi, Taiyuan, the center of what is China's most Catholic diocese. Liuhecun is difficult to find without help, and it is best accessed through the introduction of one of the local priests. On the way to the village one of Shanxi's largest secrets unfurls; church after church dot the landscape and high steeples rise above small villages as they do in southern France.

Passing through a narrow side road one arrives at Liuhecun and is welcomed by three great statues at the village entrance: St. Peter holding his keys is flanked by Saints Simon and Paul. Thirty minutes before Mass the village loudspeakers, once airing the revolutionary voice of Mao and Party slogans, now broadcasts the rosary. Winding through the village, the large church with its imposing edifice and towering dome loom above, and once you arrive you are greeted by a curious admixture of Romanesque architecture, yellow plastic palm trees, and streaming colored banners. Shanxi has its own peculiar tastes, and almost every church contains two large grandfather clocks (no-one could tell me the origin of this curious tradition) and lines of colored flags in and outside the sanctuary.

Liuhecun is China's largest Catholic village. Attending one of the church's Sunday Masses, which draws nearly three thousand faithful, is dizzying. Before Mass the priests and faithful kneel to intone the rosary in an old Shanxi-style chant – it is a loud affair, broadcast over loudspeakers. In what is only a very modest village by Chinese standards – around seven thousand people – more than ninety percent are Catholic. One of the reasons for its strong commitment to its Catholic faith, villagers say, is the village's endurance through the two terrible anti-Catholic persecutions.

Popular local stories circulate about how Liuhecun village survived the ravages of the Boxer Uprising. In a meeting with the church's lively pastor, Fr. Zhang Junhai, one of these stories was recounted. The residents say that as the Boxers approached the village during the summer of 1900, the Virgin Mary appeared above the church's bell tower in flowing white robes; her hands were extended in prayer before her. They say an army of angels surrounded her as she prayed, and whichever direction she faced pointed toward the direction from which the Boxers were approaching. Thus, with Mary's help the stronger men of the community were able to prepare in advance to ward off the Boxer attack. Several times the Boxers approached, and each time Mary appeared above the church praying in the direction of their advance. The Catholics of the village also attribute to Mary's assistance the fact that the Boxer cannons backfired on the attackers as they fired on the village. Today, the village's devotion to Mary is tangible; traditionally each family prays an evening rosary and displays an image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in their home.

Nearly seven decades after the violent Boxer Uprising, the Cultural Revolution disturbed the peaceful rhythms of the village. The church was stripped of its pews, the altar lay bare, and revolutionary slogans covered the walls and columns. Like all China at that time, Liuhecun's church was closed and the faithful were compelled to either join the radical fervor of the Red Guards or suffer under the revolution for remaining Catholic. Some of the villagers erected tents for Mass where the priest courageously offered the Holy Sacrifice on a makeshift altar. One elderly man, in his nineties, quite openly recounted for us the arrest and beating of his Franciscan uncle during the turbulence of the Maoist era. The priest was "struggled against" several times, which included pulling his hair, physical beatings, and cruel forms of restraint. In the end, the priest suffered from a head injury and died. Stories of Mary's assistance and the sacrifices of such holy people as the Franciscan who died in 1969, strengthen the resolve of the village to remain committed to its faith.

Fr. Zhang informed me that there are new struggles today, less related to persecution than the burgeoning wave of materialism that prevails in modern China. While the youth are in the village they commonly attend catechism, in addition to a rich schedule of liturgical rites and parish events. Since nearly all of the villagers are active Catholics, those who remain in the community are little affected by the consumerism and secular views of China's majority. Less than three percent of China is Christian, so there is scant spiritual support for those who leave the village for study or employment outside the community. The villagers can rely on each other for support and encouragement; they are willing to bear the monetary fines when having more than one child since their Catholic neighbors support and assist them. But it is more difficult to resist official policies and pressures when away from the community. Liuhecun remains China's largest Catholic village largely because it has formulated strategies for having multiple children, who are subsequently raised in devoted Catholic households. Attending Mass in the immense church, one is bewildered by the number of children whirling through the aisles before the service, a unique sight in one-child-policy China.

Just over two centuries ago, Liuhecun was little more than a sequence of agricultural fields; today it is a Catholic success story in a country with a long history of anti-Catholic persecution. When asked about the village's dedication to the Pope, Fr. Zhang noted its fierce loyalty to the Holy Father and its commitment to following his teachings. I noticed the proudly-displayed papal blessing and photograph of Benedict XVI near Fr. Zhang's desk as he answered this question. "We are a very traditional Catholic community," he said, "not like in other countries." I could not help but think that despite the irregularity of the Chinese Church's relationship with Rome, in many ways it retains a stronger Catholic identity and commitment than many other countries.

Liuhecun is an extraordinary Catholic village, and it enjoys comparative freedom from governmental interference, perhaps due to its remote location. It is also extremely poor, and the lure of material comforts continues to draw villagers away. Not all of those who leave the village strain to retain their faith, however. Liuhecun is one of the principal springs from which vocations emerge in all of China. It seems that in almost every diocese one encounters a young priest who tells you he is from Liuhecun, and there can be little doubt that most of China's Catholics have heard of this wellspring of faith and vocations.

The faith of China's largest Catholic village is passionate, for the very name of their small village alludes to God's role in synchronizing all existence. From ancient times China has believed in the harmonious relationship between the "five directions," north, south, east, west, middle, known as the "Five Harmonies" (Wuhe). Not long after the Catholics of this region settled, they named their new village "Six Harmonies Village" (Liuhecun) because they believe there can be no harmony without God, the "sixth direction."

As I departed from Liuhecun after attending a Mass that felt almost like Mass at St. Peter's, Fr. Zhang, his assistant priest, and the church manager stood near the gate, waving goodbye. Hundreds of old men and women stood near the church door watching the foreign guests leaving the village. And it seemed like a thousand children ran past us laughing and playing with each other. I imagined that many of those young boys and girls, God willing, someday will serve the Church as priests and nuns. I wondered also how many non-Chinese Catholics have heard of this astonishing village, tucked inconspicuously in the arid scenery of Shanxi province.

Looking back at the enormous church I reflected on the catholicity of the Catholic Church; a Western-style church surrounded by all things Chinese. Most Westerners would not recognize the tunes of the chanted prayers, or the language, or the way people interact. But any Christian would readily admire the deeply pious faith of Liuhecun's humble Catholics, who have not only survived two persecutions, but in fact grown from them as a seed from watered soil.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Interviews, and Excerpts:

"Oh, that I might be found worthy of martyrdom!" | From the Introduction to The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs | Gerolamo Fazzini
On Writing A History of Christianity in China | Preface to Christians In China: A.D. 600 to 2000 | Fr. Jean-Pierre Charbonnier
"Weaving a Profound Dialogue between West and East": On Matteo Ricci, S.J. | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
China, Catholicism, and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. and Carl E. Olson | Dec. 29, 2008
The Church in China: Complexity and Community | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | December 22, 2008
China's Catholics of Guizhou: Three Days with Three Bishops | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | October 3, 2008
China's Struggling Catholics: A Second Report on the Church in Beijing | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | September 13, 2008
China's Thriving Catholics: A Report From Beijing's South Cathedral | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | August 20, 2008
Two Chinese Churches? Or One? | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
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

Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. (above, left) is Assistant Professor of Asian History at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.

He completed his doctoral studies at the University of Oregon, where he studied Chinese history, literature, philosophy, and religion. His current research centers on the history of the Church in China, and he has recently finished a book on the Catholic martyrs saints in China. His other interests include East/West religious dialogue, especially between Catholic and Buddhist ideas of faith and salvation. Dr. Clark has written several academic books and articles on the topic of Chinese history and has been a guest on "EWTN Live," "Catholic Answers Live," and Relevant Radio to talk about Catholicism in China. He is also a contributing editor for This Rock magazine.

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