China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2009/Jan

Triumph and tragedy in 2008

Someone described sports and “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Last year was marked by both triumphs and tragedies which will be remembered for a generation.

The Olympics and other successes

The opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing on 8 August 2008 was spectacular. China is probably the only country in the world which can choreograph so many performers – and it led in gold medal standings. The successful flight of three astronauts in Shenzhou VII, featuring China’s first space walk on September 27, was also a star performance. The year ended with a celebration of 30 years of reform and opening to the outside world.

Since December 1978 there has been an enormous growth in the Chinese economy and trade with the rest of the world. Living standards for 21per cent of the human race have risen enormously in one generation.

The Olympics made provision for athletes to attend religious services. Catholics nationwide felt proud of China’s achievements. As Pope John Paul II said – and as Pope Benedict XVI has repeated – there is no contradiction between being “truly Christian and authentically Chinese.”

No shortage of bad news

Restrictions on unregistered congregations – and even some arrests – continued in various parts of China.

Snow started to fall on January 10. By the end of the month, when over 100 million migrant workers were heading home to celebrate the Year of the Rat, a blizzard had closed the great railroad junction of Changsha, Hunan (湖南长沙), and roads within 1,000 kilometers were coated with ice. Disturbances erupted in Tibet in March. May 12 was China’s worst single day of 2008, when a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck northern Sichuan (四川) and killed at least 69,000 people. Catholic churches and a century-old seminary were among the buildings destroyed. Soldiers arrived to rescue people in the rubble and ordinary people volunteered to help. Catholics from Hong Kong were among those who donated to the relief effort and some local Catholic medical people and social workers also went into the mountains as short-term volunteers.

In New York City, a financial tsunami began on Wall Street in mid-September, and waves of falling stock prices and bankruptcies washed around the world. By the end of 2008, rising unemployment had become a global nightmare.

Many factories in China dismissed workers, at least temporarily. Those migrants from the countryside had struggled to adapt to an urban environment, with big city stresses and temptations. Several million of them ended 2008 in their home villages, coping with reverse culture shock and reduced incomes. One silver lining to this cloud is that a multitude of village children who were being raised by grandparents have been reunited with their parents.

A cartoon in the Hong Kong Chinese Catholic weekly, Kung Kao Po, linked the seven skinny cows of Genesis 41 to the upcoming Year of the Ox. One lean year will be bad enough.

The number of bishops declines

No bishops were ordained in 2008. That was unusual, since a handful had been ordained in each of the previous few years. Maybe one candidate was not acceptable to the government, or another did not get approval from the Vatican, or else everyone’s attention was focussed on the Olympics – it’s easy to speculate on a non-event. Certainly there are 20 or 30 vacancies that need filling now, or in the next couple of years. There might be a flood of new bishops in 2009. Only God knows!

The local Church is incomplete without a bishop, yet priests still administer the sacraments, religious sisters continue to teach children, and serve the sick and elderly, while unheralded laypeople live the gospel and attract others to Jesus.

Six Bishops went to their heavenly reward after long lives of service and sacrifice: Mathias Chen Xilu (陳鍚祿) Hengshui diocese (Jingxian), Hebei (河北衡水) on January 16 at age 88; James Zhao Ziping (趙子平), of Jinan diocese, Shandong (山東濟南) on May 18 at age 96; Joseph Jiang Mingyuan (姜明遠) of Zhaoxian, Hebei (河北趙縣), on July 13 at age 77; Joseph Sun Zhibin (孫知賓) of Yidu, Shandong (山東益都) on October 23 at age 97; Pius Jin Peixian (金沛獻) retired, Liaoning (遼寧), on November 4 at age 84, and Joseph Xu Zhixuan (徐之玄) of Wanzhou, Chongqing (重慶萬州), on December 8 at age 92.

Their average age was 89. All of them spent at least several years in prison and experienced hard labor. Travel often meant walking or bicycling, which is good for the heart. Those bishops ate a little meat in the 20th Century and a little meat in the 21st Century.

The new generation of bishops is young enough to be their grandsons. They are entering high Church office in a much more prosperous China. Travelling by car or bus, they may not live as long as their predecessors. Two priests were killed in road accidents in China in 2008.

Prosperity is a mixed blessing. Physical hardship is now less prominent in the lives of Church personnel. However, a sedentary lifestyle and the stress of running the Church well in a modernising society both take a toll on body and spirit.

Impasse on bishops continues

December 19 saw 45 bishops, 200 other Church personnel, as well as high government officials attend a celebration in Beijing of 50 years of the “self-election and self-ordination” of bishops.

In 1958, two bishops were ordained in Wuhan without papal approval. Last month’s speeches extolled the “independent running of the Church,” meaning independence from the Holy See, not from the Chinese government. The sad fact is that much of the rhetoric was the same as in 1958, 1988 or 1998.

The situation has been worse: not one bishop appeared publicly in China in 1968, while in 1978, most of them were still in prison. Yet that celebration raises a worrisome question: will different officials reread the same speeches in 2018, simply substituting “60 years” for “50 years”?

Religion in the news media

The media mentioned the Church positively several times, such as on January 21 when, for 15 minutes on television featured three Catholic communities; a newspaper article on April 4, the third anniversary of the loss of “beloved” Pope John Paul II; ample coverage of the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra performing for Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican on May 7; a bishop carrying the Olympic torch on July 31, and church photos being included in a display of recent history in Nanning (南寧) in November. The cathedral in Tianjin (天津) placed advertisements in local newspapers inviting the public to visit. Several diocesan websites are quite basic, but two or three dioceses manage to update more eye-catching and detailed sites.

The China Daily Online commented on March 4 that “religion can promote harmony and social development,” giving official figures of 18 million Muslims, 10 million Protestants, four million Catholics and over 70 million Buddhists and Daoists.

Actual numbers are higher, but hard to determine. An educated guess is 13 million Catholics, or one per cent of China’s population.

All of this combined is far less than a single Buddhist or Christian television channel, but at least the media did not publicise fierce denunciations of religion, as in earlier decades.

Mainland and Hong Kong ecology

The ecology received more attention. Awareness has grown regarding the cost in money, health and lives of air and water pollution, and the threat of global warming looms. Only five years ago, the word “development” was repeated like a mantra in every news story. Now the qualification “sustainable” has been added. Sustainable development, a scientific concept of development and a low-carbon economy are all hard challenges.

Thankfully, the boast, “science is all-powerful,” was not heard in 2008. No official went so far as to joke that “solutions are the main cause of problems,” yet more people at all levels are admitting that the road to a prosperous society will be long and difficult.

Solving one problem often creates another, unexpected headache. Unintended consequences can surprise even the experts, but there are no quick fixes. The spiritual values of patience, moderation, wisdom and simplicity are needed in economics as well as in religion.

In Hong Kong, the Colloquium of Six Religious Leaders (Buddhist, Catholic, Confucian, Daoist, Muslim and Protestant) highlighted the economic crisis in their year-end joint statement. They offered hope that religion can call people to cooperation and mutual assistance as a humane alternative to greed and ruthless competition, and planted a tree to symbolise a greener future.

Common year or year of grace?

Overall, 2008 had more than its share of shocks. China Bridge has never claimed to have a crystal ball. This column has been critical of fortune tellers on a few occasions, so we will not offer any predictions for the year 2009.

The year 2009 what? The year 2009 CE – Common Era. But Christians say 2009 AD -Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord. We also date ancient events BC, Before Christ, rather than BCE, Before the Common Era. The birth of Jesus is the main dividing line in human history for us.

Old books occasionally used another term: the Year of Grace. To be full of grace, like Our Lady, is to be full of God’s life. This is not identical with a closet full of clothes and shoes, a refrigerator full of meat and beer, or a wallet full of cash and credit cards.

As this article goes to press, it is difficult to be wildly hopeful for the economy in 2009. Now is a good time to resurrect that old term, Year of Grace. People who can sense the presence of God during the Year of Grace 2009 will enjoy something that money cannot buy.

MJS and ST