The Catholic Church in China is complex, struggling, growing, surprising – and alive, as several news articles over the past week attest.
Last week, international news agencies reported on the release of Catholic bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo 15 months after his arrest during the Vatican’s China Commission’s plenary meeting in Rome in March 2009. Zenit reports that at the time, the arrest was seen as a statement on the commission’s efforts to study the Church in China – especially since Bishop Jia has been outspoken on the need for reconciliation between Chinese Catholics who are part of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and those resisting state control while declaring their allegiance to Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican.
Upon his release, the bishop is said to have immediately offered Mass for his diocese – which underwent increased harassment in his absence – at Christ the King Cathedral near Shijiazhuang, the capital of China’s northeastern Hebei province. He also stressed that he did not join the Patriotic Association while in prison, nor did he approve of the state-approved bishops’ conference in the country, which asserts independence from the Holy See.
It’s tempting to refer to two Churches in China – an official, national one, versus the persecuted Church underground. Yet the Vatican – and most importantly, Pope Benedict, in his 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics – has taken care to refer to one Church in China that must maintain unity with the universal Church around the world. While this is a rebuke of the communist government’s attempts to control the Church hierarchy by appointing state-approved bishops, it’s not a condemnation of the bishops, priests, religious and laity who have registered with the government and joined the Patriotic Association.
Unity is key, as Pope Benedict recognized when exhorting Chinese Catholics to reflect the Church as a sacrament of communion and love, and as Bishop Jia continues to tirelessly work for. (A 2005 article from AsiaNews reported that the prelate had already spent two decades of his time in ministry under arrest).
Revealing yet another facet of the Catholic Church in China is a fascinating article by Dr. Anthony Clark posted on IgnatiusInsight.com. Describing “A Visit to China’s Largest Catholic Village,” the article is an intriguing report on how the village of Liuhecun survived organized persecution during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century and Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and now flourishes as a stronghold of the faith where families help pay each other’s state-imposed fines for having more than one child and older residents remember the village martyrs as relatives and friends.
Economically, the village is extremely poor, yet it is undeniably rich in the faith of its inhabitants. It is known for being a wellspring of vocations – priests from Liehecun serve across the country – and for its deeply engrained devotion to the Virgin Mary, whom locals credit for saving their homes and lives during times of persecution.
“Thirty minutes before Mass the village loudspeakers, once airing the revolutionary voice of Mao and Party slogans, now broadcasts the rosary,” Clark writes. “One of the reasons for [Liehecun’s] strong commitment to its Catholic faith, villagers say, is the village’s endurance through the two terrible anti-Catholic persecutions.”
Fittingly, last Friday the Catholic Church commemorated 120 men, women and children who were martyred for their faith in China, most of them killed during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Among them was 18-year-old Chi Zhuzi, who had been preparing for Baptism before being caught and ordered to renounce Christianity.
His right arm was cut off, yet in the spirit of St. Ignatius of Antioch the teen told his torturers, “Every piece of my flesh, every drop of my blood will tell you that I am Christian.” He was eventually flayed alive.
When canonizing the Chinese martyrs in 2000 – only a small representation of those who have died for the faith over the centuries in China – Pope John Paul II said, “Chinese men and women of every age and state, priests, religious and lay people, showed the same conviction and joy, sealing their unfailing fidelity to Christ and the Church with the gift of their lives.”
Whether exemplified in a bishop who boldly continues to lead his flock under the government’s watchful eye, or a rural village that vibrantly lives out the faith that has sustained it for generations, the Church in China is still clearly experiencing that “unfailing fidelity to Christ” today.