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Sunday Mass at Beijing's North Church | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | September 16, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

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After Sunday Mass at Beijing's largest and oldest church, Beitang (North Church), well over a thousand faithful filed out of their pews into the Chinese-style courtyard leading to the church's dramatic entrance. Inside, one man, roughly mid-thirties, stretched his arms high above his head, looked upward, and offered prayers of thanksgiving. His right hand held a long, worn, rosary. Behind him several elderly men and women began intoning Catholic hymns that still use the melody and style of Ming dynasty Buddhist chanting.

Several priests gathered in the courtyard to meet with members of the parish – most of the priests are older, but at least one appeared recently ordained. During Mass, the celebrant spoke animatedly about Christ's exhortation: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life."

This is a difficult topic in modern China, wrenched apart by its two antagonized personalities, one explicitly Marxist, and another implicitly capitalistic. China's class division grows more intense while it purports to espouse Marx's ideology of class elimination. But the Middle Kingdom has always been a place of accepted paradox. The ancient philosopher, Han Feizi, once wrote about a weapons seller who boasted that his spears could pierce through anything, and that his shields could not be pierced – a nearby man then asked the seller if his spears could pierce his own shields. "Spear/shield" (maodun) is thus the Chinese word for paradox, and the notion that all things are essentially "spear/shield" is a common Chinese assumption. China's Catholics, who live in a society that seemingly accepts that Marxism can be materialist (Marx would have blanched), try to live their faith in an impossible situation. To some extent, even they live in a state of paradox – "spear/shield."

As the Church in China grows, so does the level of control and oppression it is forced to endure. While many faithful remained in their pews after Mass to offer thanks to God and his Mother, I met with an old acquaintance, Mr. T, and a new priest, Fr. X, who updated me on recent events in China's Catholic community. We first spoke of how many Chinese Catholics feel as though their history has been "cut at the root," that since the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) the Church in China has had little freedom to investigate or discuss its own history. Few Americans know that the Church in China is centuries older then the Church in America. Many records that were in China during that turbulent decade were either destroyed by Maoist radicals or confiscated by the government, and China's present authorities are uninterested in making Catholic historical documents available for consultation.

China's faithful are hungry for a sense of continuity with their historical past, a past that they are prevented from accessing. Fr. X and Mr. T were unaware, for instance, that only thirty feet from where we stood an elderly priest had been struggled against and buried alive by Red Guards, an event still remembered, but seldom discussed, by some of Beitang's older parishioners. The diocesan archives for Beijing, including the church records of all of the major Catholic parishes, were taken and burned by the Red Guards in 1966 and 1967. It is like being a child with little memory of, and no documentation about, his own family.

Perhaps the most divisive recent event in the Chinese Church is the ordination of Leshan's government-appointed bishop, Lei Shiyin. While the local faithful might sometimes accept, to some degree, the ordination of a non-Vatican supported bishop, the rumors that the new bishop has two children has turned the country's Catholics against him in an unusually intense fashion. The additional fact that Rome excommunicated this new bishop has made matters even more complicated, as Beijing's own bishop, Li Shan, was involved in Bishop Lei's ordination. Many of Beijing's Catholics now feel compelled to avoid attending Masses or events connected with Bishop Li Shan, and some refuse to visit Beijing's cathedral church, Nantang (South Church). Beijing's post-Mao Catholic history is complex – its previous bishop, Fu Tieshan, headed the Patriotic Catholic Association, and was known to be married. Local Catholics had hoped that the capital's next bishop could avoid such controversies.

The lack of access to its own history, married bishops, bishops with children, excommunicated bishops, and the forced ordinations of illicit bishops are among the issues confronted by the Catholics of China's massive capital city. But amid these trials, triumphs paradoxically emerge – "spear/shield." Just as state control becomes tighter, the state has begun to release some of the property it had previously taken from the Church, and return it to the diocese. Not too long ago the only property still held by the Beitang parish was the church itself and a small building behind it reserved for a community of nuns. Before the government confiscated the church property, the Betiang consisted of a great complex of buildings, including a library, seminary, convent, and bishop's residence. For some reason, the city government has returned the bishop's residence to the church, which it had converted into a school during the Maoist era, and the Catholics have already placed a sizable cross over the residence entrance. Architects and construction workers have also nearly completed restoration of the beautiful structures and courtyards.

I was allowed to photograph the restored church property, including the bishop's former private chapel. A graceful painting of Our Lady displayed in this chapel has survived decades of Communist rule, and plans are being made to restore the space so that the Holy Sacrifice can once again be offered there. Beitang's Catholics weren't quite sure what shall become of the government's generous gift, but the restored property will soon have two pavilions, one dedicated to Mary and another to St. Joseph, and the thriving parish will finally have enough room for its growing number of activities.

China's complex political situation has notably affected China's Catholic community, and the problems of China's Catholic community are, in fact, mostly political. Beijing's Catholics cannot escape state control; after all, the "emperor" and his dragon throne are just down the street. But despite the State's looming presence, churches continue to fill, the faithful continue to pray the rosary and chant old Chinese hymns; the diocese happily accepts the return of its property. The life of an average Catholic in the pews is not easy. Beijing's Olympic games are over, and the sense here in China is that the world is no longer watching.

What this means for the Chinese Church in coming years remains to be seen. Politics are politics and faith is faith, and the Catholics of Beitang, as much as possible, try to remain centered on the God of their faith. Just now, Beijing is gearing up to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. And I could not help but think of this as I left Beitang; even more so as Fr. X stretched out his arms to bless us, invoking God and his Holy Mother to watch over us and the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

The photos below were taken by the author in late August and are reprinted with his permission. From top to bottom: the front of the Beitang North Church; Mass in the church; the restored residence on the church property.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Interviews, and Excerpts:

EWTN series, "Saints of China", offers personal view of Catholicism, Catholic saints in China | September 4, 2011
July 9, 1900: Remembering China's Franciscan Saints | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | July 9, 2011
No Easy Answers: An Interview with Shanghai's Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, S.J. | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | July 23, 2010
A Visit to China's Largest Catholic Village | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | July 12, 2010
"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. (second from the left, at the tomb of Matteo Ricci in late 2008) 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 the host of the EWTN series, "Saints of China".

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