Move comes as China resumes businesses, raising suspicions it is a communist ploy to suppress religion
Updated: May 1, 2020 01:03 PM BKK
All public church activities in China, including Marian pilgrimages, have been suspended for another month, announced the two bodies that run the state-controlled Catholic Church in the communist country.
The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and its bishops’ forum, the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, jointly announced the further delay to activities. It aims to avoid gatherings as part of measures to check the Covid-19 pandemic, they said.
The announcement issued on April 26 suspended all churches’ activities and traditional Marian pilgrimages throughout May.
The notice also delayed the opening of seminaries and religious institutes that train church personnel.
Some Catholics suspect the communist regime is using the pandemic as a cover to suppress religion as the move comes amid administrative claims of dissipating Covid-19.
Chinese cities and towns report normal life has returned and China has opened most businesses, including markets and tourist places that attract thousands, such as the Great Wall of China, which was shut for two months, Christian leaders note.
China had banned all public gatherings, including public religious worship, since January when the Covid-19 pandemic began to spread.
However, the state-controlled church’s notice said that although the pandemic had been effectively controlled in China, it remains a serious threat in several other countries. Pilgrimages can significantly increase the risk of importing the virus, it said.
‘Calendar dates unimportant’
The notice asked all dioceses and parishes to suspend all pilgrimage programs. It also advised clergy to explain and counsel Catholics on the need to suspend Marian pilgrimages.
The Church traditionally considers May as the month dedicated to Mother Mary. Catholics across China conduct pilgrimages to big and small Marian centers in over 130 dioceses, including those established by the state.
The state church asked Catholics to celebrate “the month of the Blessed Virgin Mary” by engaging in personal prayer.
Ahead of this notice, the dioceses of Shanghai, Beijing and Zhouzhi issued separate notices announcing the cancellation of popular Marian pilgrimages to Sheshan, Tangtown, Ping Yin Huang and Jiangshan.
These notices also said no pilgrims or visitors would be received and no Masses and prayers would be held in their popular Marian pilgrim centers.
Joseph Wu, a parishioner of Shanghai Diocese, said canceling the pilgrimages was the right decision because in a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai the spread of the virus could spell disaster.
He said most people who come to China land in Shanghai, putting a lot of pressure on the local community to prevent the disease.
However, he said, if there was no threat from the pandemic, he would have made the pilgrimage to Sheshan as he does every year.
Father Peter, a priest in a diocese adjacent to Shanghai, explained to his parishioners that the calendar date is not essential to a pilgrimage. “It has the same significance at other times too as long as we do it with faith.”
Father Peter said Shanghai schools are preparing to start the school year soon. “Religious places and institutes should gradually open as soon as the students start schools,” he said.
A bishop of a northern diocese said the government should not be blamed for putting restrictions because “it is a serious pandemic. It really can’t be ignored.”
However, Beijing parishioner Li Xue questioned the decision to cancel pilgrimages. She noted that several tourist attractions have not only reopened but also engaged in various promotions.
“These tourist places are obviously more crowded and concentrated than the pilgrim centers,” she said. “The government has a bit too much control over religion. The authorities are using the epidemic as an excuse to curtail religious freedom, and that’s the scary part.”
Father Dong of Hebei echoed those sentiments. “The Chinese Communist Party has always been hostile to religion. They are looking for opportunities to suppress the Church.”