China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2008/Mar

Children of the resurrection

It is interesting to ask new converts: “What was the hardest thing about becoming Catholic?” The answers vary. In a country where people switch from one religion or denomination easily, without paying much of a price, common responses include “devotion to Our Lady,” “the authority of the pope,” or “going to confession.” If there is a social cost involved, such as losing friends or becoming a second-class citizen, then the commitment can be more intimidating.

But if possible penalties are confiscation of property, imprisonment, or even death, then it takes courage to study our faith and even greater courage to ask for baptism. Such was the situation for the first several generations of Christians and there are still places in the world in 2008 where professing Jesus Christ as the risen Lord is definitely hazardous to health.

Faithfulness was not easy for Jesus either! There is a reason why the pain of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday had to come before the joy of Easter.

Good Friday for the Church in China

Good Friday lasted a long time for the Catholic Church in China. It really started on 1 October 1949 in Tiananmen Square with the celebration of the communist victory in the civil war. Trouble was in store for what was widely perceived as a foreign religion. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 further cut China’s contacts with the west and increased pressure on Chinese Christians to distance themselves from western missionaries. Protestants also felt the heat, but visible ties to the highly centralised Vatican made Catholics an easier target of criticism.

An eclipse does not occur in the blink of an eye. As the 1950s progressed, churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship were closed one after another. Many of these places ended up desecrated, damaged, used as factories and warehouses, or completely destroyed. When the Cultural Revolution, a total eclipse of Chinese tradition, began in 1966, the Catholic Church was already extremely weak. All foreign missionaries, except Bishop James Edward Walsh of Maryknoll – and he was in prison – had been expelled, recalled by their societies, or had left China voluntarily. Chinese bishops and priests were also in prisons or labour camps. The Church had become a non-entity in Chinese society, exercising hardly any influence whatsoever. For all practical purposes, it had died and could only wait in hope for the time of its resurrection. It was a Church of Holy Saturday.

In 1971, the government did allow one lone Catholic church to open its doors. That was the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, more commonly know as the South Church or the Nantang. The Nantang is the oldest church in Beijing. Mateo Ricci built the original chapel on the present site in 1605. It went without saying that the ordinary Chinese citizen was not permitted to go to the South Church in 1971. Attendance was restricted to members of the diplomatic corps and foreigners doing business in China. Total darkness had past, but the eclipse was still in process and people still felt the chill.

New openness, new life

Perhaps the violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) also helped to bring new life to the Church. As the government put an end to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and condemned the destructiveness of the Gang of Four, it also began to restore civil order and normal activities. All five officially recognised religions, not just the Catholics, but Protestants, Buddhists, Taoists and Muslims, were able to profit from this new openness.

The Church only showed signs of a possible future resurrection in December 1978, when a crucial meeting took place in Beijing. The Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party voted to implement the newly proposed open reform policy, initiating the Four Modernisations. Agriculture, defence, industry and science-technology were in serious need of modernisation.

The open reform policy provided a chance for the Church to rise from the ashes of her long years of suffering and persecution. It was under the new and irreversible policy of modernisation, now almost 30 years old, that the Church began to return to life.

By 1979, the authorities knew that they needed to enlist every able-bodied citizen to modernise China. People nationwide, spurred on by the promise of better days to come and a higher standard of living, rallied to the central government’s call to join enthusiastically in the reform movement.

As a result, the clergy, who were still in prisons or labour camps, were asked to return to their churches. Bishops and priests who had suffered through the years of the Cultural Revolution, as well as those who had been in prisons since the 1950s and who had been labelled as rightists, were exonerated and rehabilitated.

The return of the priests and religious sisters signalled the return of the laity. Old Catholics returned to their parishes weeping with joy at the sight of their former, now-aged pastor and elderly sisters. They were eager to be at Mass once again, to receive the sacraments and delighted to be able to kneel before the blessed sacrament to pray alone or to chant their prayers with the community. These were sure signs of a possible future resurrection.

Women respond to the call

The Catholic Church has always depended, not only on priests, but also very much on women to serve the faithful in a variety of ways. Many of the women who were dispersed during the years of turmoil and who had remained faithful to their original vows, had returned to their parishes. Soon young women began to flock to convents as they reopened, asking to be admitted to the sisterhood. This also signalled a resurrection.

Sisters work in clinics, teach in kindergartens, take care of the elderly, HIV/AIDS patients and abandoned children. They help the priests as pastoral workers, staff retreat houses, or work in the field of Catholic publications. In recent years, non-government organisations in China have been given more space in which to function. Over a hundred sisters have had a chance to study abroad. They returned to China better equipped to serve both Church and society.

Healing of wounds

The wounds of the China Church’s Good Friday experience, however, are not all healed. The Catholics in China will continue to bear the stigmata for years to come. The deepest wounds are those caused by division, the lack of unity between the official and unofficial Church, which constitutes a lack of oneness with the Catholic community.

This disunity is all the more painful since it is not the result of differences in doctrine, but rather the result of political constraints. These constraints, in turn, cause the faithful to be separated from the Vicar of Christ, our Holy Father, who, as visible head of the Church, is constantly being reminded not to interfere in China’s internal affairs.

Thousands also bear the wounds of long imprisonment, house arrest, surveillance, humiliation, accusations and all manner of harassment. Many have lost as many as 40 years of their lives languishing in prisons or labour camps. This situation saps a great deal of physical and spiritual energy.

When the Lord rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, he had not shed his wounds. They were part of his crown and glory. They were a reminder to those who would later follow him that he had not suffered in vain. In imitating Christ, our Catholic brothers and sisters in China are also a sign that their wounds and suffering have not been in vain. To people who worship beauty and seek cosmetic surgery, scars shown without embarrassment can convey a discomforting message of fortitude, sacrifice and final victory.

In addition, the wounds of the resurrected Christ confirmed the faith of a doubting disciple. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Later Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe” (Jn. 21:25, 27). The risen Lord is asking the Catholics in China to believe that their wounds will bring total healing to their Church.

Pray for reconciliation, not martyrdom

An opening prayer for the Mass of one martyr in the Easter season reads, “As St. N. imitated the suffering and death of the Lord, may we follow in his footsteps and come to eternal joy.” However, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Trappist monk, noted that people should not pray for martyrdom, because that means praying for someone to commit murder.

The world being what it is, Christians who live the Gospel seriously should not be surprised if they attract scorn, slander and even violence. Does this discourage outsiders from becoming Christians? During the high tide of persecution, Good Friday for the Church, yes, but in the years following the storm, the Church often gains new members. This increase only makes sense when we remember how Good Friday is followed by Easter.

In his letter to the Catholics of China last year, Pope Benedict XVI urged reconciliation and communion. When the Church in China is free to accept the gift of Christian unity, then it will truly have risen from the ashes of its many deaths and dyings. In the meantime, the risks of becoming Catholic attract people to the Church. From a worldly viewpoint, persecution should be the hardest thing about becoming Catholic, a strong deterrent to becoming a catechumen, let alone to going forward with baptism. But the tens of thousands who will be baptised at this Easter Vigil see things that the world misses: new hope after defeat and new life after suffering.