China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2003/Mar

Shanghai Revisited

“Anyone who visits Shanghai has to marvel at the new skyscrapers, modern road complexes, newest fashion in the dress of the people on the street, the number of diners in nearly all the restaurants, the almost endless array of international chain food outlets and the great number and types of banks.” This was Father Elmer Wurth’s comment on his return recently from a trip to Shanghai with a group of 11 Catholics. The group included two Chinese Jesuit priests, Fathers Gerald Tseng and Stanislaus Yuen. For several in the group, this was not their first visit; it was clearly “Shanghai revisited”. Father Elmer’s remark certainly echoes the words and feelings of all who visit Shanghai these days.

Shanghai Today

Shanghai is one of the world’s largest ports. More than 170 countries and regions around the globe trade through this port. Shanghai is also China’s biggest manufacturing centre. It turns out a long list of products that include aircraft, steel, automobiles, ocean-going ships, machinery, electronic products, electrical household appliances and countless consumer items. Shanghai is one of China’s three large municipalities directly under the control of the Central Government. The most impressive economic development in the city is without doubt the new Pudong district, which has sprung up during the past 10 years. Several of the high-rise buildings in the area rank among the tallest in the world.

Changes in the religious domain

Although Shanghai’s economic development is nothing short of mind-boggling, what strikes visitors are the tremendous changes that have taken place in the religious domain. Father Elmer says, “The Christian visitor interested in the rebirth and open expression of the Christian faith is in for quite a surprise. The Shanghai Catholic Diocese now has 103 churches and chapels serving the spiritual and other needs of the people. This is tremendous growth in a very short time.” He continues, “It is, however, far short of the more than 300 churches and chapels in the diocese before the Cultural Revolution.”

In 1949, Shanghai had 425 churches to accommodate the needs of the 147,500 Catholics. Today, in spite of the obvious progress, there is still a significant shortage of priests. Father Wurth mentioned that, “There are only 50 priests in pastoral ministry for the 103 churches. This means that each priest must serve more than one church community.” There are presently in Shanghai over 70 priests, but many of these are not engaged directly in pastoral ministry. They are working as professors in the seminaries, chancery offices, and a number are studying either at home or abroad. Many, of course, are also elderly. Before the Communist takeover of China, priests were plentiful in Shanghai. The number of Chinese and foreign priests exceeded 250.

The Catholic Church in Shanghai

The Catholic Church has been in Shanghai for more than 400 years. Catholic life, today as formerly, is centered in Xujiahui (Zikawei), formerly Xu Guangqi’s ancestral home.

Ignatius Gong Pinmei, ordained bishop on 7 October 1949, became the first Chinese bishop of Shanghai on 15 July 1950. Five years later, on 7 September 1955, Bishop Gong with 21 of his priests and more than 200 Catholic lay people were arrested. Bishop Gong was finally released on parole after 30 years of imprisonment on 3 July 1985. His civil rights were completely restored in January 1988. That same year, in May, he left for the United States to visit relatives and died there 1995.

On 17 January 1985, Jin Luxian was ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai under the sponsorship of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and then named Shanghai’s ordinary in 1988. Conscious of the need to have well-formed and educated priests, Bishop Jin set out immediately to develop the Sheshan Seminary that had re-opened in October 1982. Since its reopening, the seminary has served as a model for the other seminaries in the country.

Shehsan celebrated its 20th anniversary in the year 2002. It is proud of its record and contribution to the Church in China. Since its inception, it has graduated over 300 young men, the future leaders of the Chinese Church.

Shanghai today has 12 very modern new or completely renovated Catholic churches. Father Elmer’s pilgrim group visited six of these. “They are now all completed in artistic style,” said Father, and added, “The tremendous progress in the physical presence of the Catholic Church is evident everywhere. Without doubt, the most impressive church is Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Pudong. The church seats several thousands. When we were there the place was a beehive of activity as many young Sisters were teaching large groups of students during their summer break.”

The church has a magnificent replica of the grotto in Lourdes, France.

The members of the group visited only open churches. They did not venture into the countryside to look for those choosing to worship outside the government-approved structures. It is not known how many Catholics in Shanghai fall into this category.

Visit to elderly, retired Religious

Another highlight of the trip was a visit with 28 retired Sisters from the diocese. Although their living situation is rather spartan, the elderly religious radiate joy and happiness.

“When they heard we were there,” said Father Elmer, “they came out with canes, hobbling from their small quarters.” The Sisters in retirement in this community are all somewhere between the ages of 80 to 94. The bishop, who is appreciative of the years of service they have given to the diocese and their long years of suffering during the religious persecutions, is supporting them.

The group stayed at the St. Regis Hotel, which is both modern and service-oriented. What fascinated the group, and especially the two Jesuits, is that this hotel bears the name of a great Jesuit saint, St. John Francis Regis. The fact that the hotel bears a saint’s name does not seem to cause any of Shanghai’s avowed non-believers any problem.

Father Elmer adds, “The hotel has even gone a step farther. The Coffee Shop, where we gathered for our buffet breakfast each morning is simply called SAINTS.”

In the footsteps of earlier pilgrims

The visitors looked forward to the possibility of having a concelebrated Mass at the Sheshan basilica where the reopening of the Catholic Church in China really took place. Father Wurth recounted the story.

“One day, thousands of Catholics descended upon this magnificent structure from all directions in their small boats on the canals. They broke the locks on the church and insisted on their right to worship. They lit candles and fervently prayed even while being harassed by the police. After that incident things began to open up gradually.”

The group did manage to obtain permission from the seminary rector to celebrate Mass in the church. One of the seminarians graciously came to help set things up and stayed to serve the Mass. This was a touching and memorable occasion for the entire group.

China and the Holy Father

One thing that surprised some of the guests was to find pictures of the Holy Father in a variety of places, including the rectory dining room. This is typical of the carrot and stick techniques used by the government in relation to the Holy See. People are free to pray for the Pope – this is done daily at Mass.

There is no problem in reverencing the Pope and acknowledging him as the spiritual leader of all Catholics. At the same time, the government forbids any direct contact with the Holy Father and denies him all access to the Chinese church’s decision-making process, even in the choice of bishops.

Furthermore, church leaders in Shanghai and in other places in China are worried. They are under the impression that the government is determined to set up a national Catholic Church. This is very upsetting to believers who are deeply faithful to the Holy Father. This is especially worrisome to young priests who may be in line to become bishops and whose allegiance must be to the Holy Father and the universal church. This puts a great burden on their consciences.

All will be well

Is spite of this, the Catholics of China and Shanghai especially are convinced that in the end all will be well. Deep in their hearts they know that Christ will never abandon his church, and his prayer for unity on the eve of his death will eventually bear fruit in China.