Chinese Catholics Unable to Practice Their Faith

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The She Shan Cathedral resembles a besieged medieval castle overwhelmed by Shanghai’s glassy skyscrapers. In a sense this fragile, red-bricked construction personifies the long but turbulent presence of the Catholic Church in China.

On May 16, 2008, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI had prepared a special prayer for Chinese Catholics. By world media it was perceived as a shrewd move from the Holy See that for years had been struggling to regain control over 12 million Chinese, who are officially members of the Roman Catholic Church, without infuriating the communist regime. The prayer was publicly read out on May 24 which, by the papal decision from last year, was the day when Catholics from around the world pray for their brothers and sisters in China.

Not coincidentally, the pope offered the prayer to Our Lady of Sheshan whose figure is located in the She Shan Cathedral. The shrine’s first foundations were laid in the second half of the nineteenth century. Jesuits, who by then had run missions from Latin America to Africa to Asia, bought a scrap of land near emerging Shanghai during the Taiping revolution, a nationalist movement that combined religious fanatics and militarists. The first church was erected in 1863, only to be burned down seven years later when another uprising set China on fire.

The Vatican has been trying to warm relations with China since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ascended the throne of St. Peter. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had been seen by Beijing as biased by his inherent anti-communism that seemed to reject any dialog with the Chinese regime. On May 27, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a letter to “Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China,” which conveyed a conciliatory message, noting that China’s special conditions required special treatment.

During the unrest of 1870, the Jesuits from Shanghai gathered around a figure of the Virgin Mary and begged her for protection. As foreigners were slaughtered one by one by an angry mob, the missionaries were surprisingly left intact – a miracle – as they assumed they owed to their prayers. To thank the Virgin Mary for keeping them alive, the Jesuits started working on a new church to house her figure. In two years they managed to build a sophisticated construction of wood and stone that mixed traditional forms of European shrines with oriental elements.

The 2007 letter was as ambiguous as the situation of Catholics in China. The papal letter began: “Without claiming to deal with every detail of the complex matters well known to you, I wish through this letter to offer some guidelines concerning the life of the Church and the task of evangelization in China, in order to help you discover what the Lord and Master Jesus Christ wants from you.” Presently, the communist regime exercises the right to designate Chinese bishops and cardinals whereas in other countries it is the Vatican that nominates priests for higher positions. Also Beijing allows services only in churches belonging to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association which is fully controlled by the state.

In 1874, Pope Pius IX turned the She Shan church into the center point of Catholicism in China by granting full amnesty to everyone who visited the shrine in May. With the influx of pilgrims from all over the country, the Jesuits modernized the old church and added new buildings, among them a chapel and fourteen Stations of the Cross. The turn of the twentieth century was a relatively peaceful time in the Chinese Empire and, protected by expeditionary forces, European missionaries enjoyed vast liberties and privileges. In 1925, a decision was made to tear down the old church and replace it with a new, bigger one. It was completed ten years later.

Papal diplomacy has made sure that the prayer will be accepted by Beijing. Taught by almost four decades of dealing with communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, the Vatican has mastered a way to work out a compromise between the 12 million Catholics and the ruling Chinese Communist Party that officially acknowledges only one religion: Marxism. “Our Lady of Sheshan, sustain all those in China, who, amid their daily trails, continue to believe, to hope, to love,” begins the last verse of the prayer.

The She Shan church was officially ordained a minor Basilica in 1942 by Pius XII. Seeing the strengthening of communist forces, the pope wanted to consolidate Chinese Catholics and keep them united during the brutal Japanese occupation. The inevitable came seven years later with Mao pushing his nationalist adversaries to the small island of Formosa where they established Taiwan. Following the example of other communist countries, red China began to persecute missionaries and native Catholics who had to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to practice their religion. Also the She Shan church could not avoid damages this time, and most of its ornamentation was destroyed along with the figure of the Virgin Mary that topped one of the towers.

With only 12 million Catholics, China pales in comparison with such countries as Brazil or Poland where the number of Roman Catholics reaches tens of millions of people. But the Vatican realizes that, as an emerging political and military power, Beijing will soon play a more active role on the world stage. So far the main obstacle to establishing proper diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See is the fact that the Vatican is one of the few countries that still officially recognize Taiwan. Pope Benedict XVI faces a difficult choice between reaching out to the communist giant and preserving ties with its rebelled province.

For years the Communists tried to keep people away from the She Shan cathedral. However, with the slow softening of the regime after the death of Mao, authorities decided to spruce up the shrine as a sign of the country’s opening to the outside world. It would not be until 2000 that the cathedral was restored to its original condition with the holy figure being restored to the tower. In 2007, some 11,000 pilgrims were allowed to visit the shrine. Due to unspecified “security reasons,” the Chinese government cut this number by half this year.

Pope Benedict XVI has made good relations with China an important part of his pontiff. But even though the Vatican diplomacy has been struggling to engage the communist regime in any form of dialog, it is up to Beijing to make the next room. The restrictions imposed on the She Shan cathedral, however, clearly show that it will be a long time until Chinese Catholics will be able to fully practice their faith.

Krzys Wasilewski, while living in Poland, completing his masters degree in International Relations, was seduced by English Literature.