CHINA – VATICAN
Fujian, from Bishop Bai’s Grotto to the Maria Rosa Mystica Sanctuary
The cases of Mindong and Fuzhou risk becoming the “Chinese model” in the appointment of bishops. The need for religious freedom, not to crush the lives of the faithful under the burdens of diplomacy. One of the best known priest-bloggers reflects on the life of the faithful in China’s official underground Churches.
by Shan Ren Shen Fu (山人神父)
Beijing (AsiaNews) – Bishop Bai’s Grotto is a monument commemorating the persecution suffered by the Fujian Church in the 18th century and is a memorial site for the region’s underground church. The Maria Rosa Mystica Sanctuary, built in the 1990s by Bishop Zheng Chang-zheng, is a basilica of the official Church. Shanren, the blogger priest, reflects on the value of these two shrines and on the possibility of ever greater unity between official and unofficial Catholics. Fr. Shanren, who belongs to the official Church, believes that the Vatican is a little too “positive” and optimistic. He also considers a recent interview with Msgr. Claudio Maria Celli, suggesting that in an attempt to unite the official and underground, it is necessary to equip the faithful with greater religious freedom rather than loading them (especially underground) with the burdens that arise from diplomatic agreements.
Bishop Bai’s cave belongs to the diocese of Mindong, located in Gangkou; while the Villa Rosa belongs to the diocese of Fuzhou, located in Changle. These two renowned Catholic shrines represent the very survival of the Church in Fujian during these years.
The Catholic Church in Fujian boasts an ancient history dating back to the arrival of Giovanni da Montecorvino [i]in China during the Yuan dynasty. It was then that the Quanzhou diocese was established. Later, the Spanish missionaries also arrived in Fujian during the reign of Wanli [1563-1620] of the Ming dynasty. The first Chinese bishop ordained in those years was Luo Wenzao, originally from Luo Jiaxiang (Mindong). When Giulio Aleni [ii]evangelized in Fuzhou, he was known as the “Confucius of the West”. Fuzhou has been at the center of the Chinese Rite Dispute, so Fuzhou has been a place of great importance for Catholicism in China throughout history.
The dioceses of Fuzhou and Mindong have a large number of faithful, the missions are concentrated mainly in the unofficial Church, but in recent years, the situation seems to have undergone some changes, namely: the two dioceses have practically completed the union process with the Official church [iii].
Yesterday [June 9, see here], Bishop Lin Jiashan of the Diocese of Fuzhou was officially installed. Following in the footsteps of the Catholic Church in Mindong, the Fuzhou Catholic Church also completed the transformation process. In the wider scope of things, this is certainly positive, a result desired by the Vatican, in view of the expiry of the Provisional Agreement in September, which now has the possibility of being renewed[iv]. The “climate of respect” [v] underlined by Archbishop Celli is based precisely on the transformation completed by the Fujian Church and the desire to renew the Agreement.
The “Mindong model” has now expanded to incorporate the “Fujian model” and will later become the “Chinese model” under the current leadership of the Vatican. For the Holy See, the result of the two dioceses of Fujian shows that this path is viable! Observing these successes leaves little room for doubt! In short, the Vatican’s attitude is a positive one.
Bishop Bai’s grotto
Last year, I took part in a pilgrimage to Bishop Bai’s grotto. This grotto is the result of the ban on Christian evangelization during the Qing dynasty. At that time, Emperor Qianlong [1711-1799] was rather hostile towards missionaries and began to prohibit the spread of the Catholic faith. Most of the missionaries tried to hide and continued evangelization in a clandestine way. They were often captured by local officials, and subsequently deported or killed. Bishop Bai was martyred in 1747.
During the pilgrimage, Fr. Wu would often say: this cave has become famous thanks to Bishop Bai. In fact, so many missionaries went into hiding here when Christianity was prohibited.
When we went, passing through Gangkou, it was just after noon, we went up the Way of the Cross, but the religious signs on the two sides were closed by bricks, with the inscription “X place” on them. At the beginning I did not understand and all I could think of was why the Way of the Cross had been bricked up. We hadn’t done the Via Crucis. The only thing I remember is that I had asked what these platforms are all the same as each other. Father Wu explained and I realized that I was heading towards Bishop Bai’s grotto.
Now there is a path that leads you to the grotto, but try to imagine in times gone by, when missionaries climbed and ventured into the forest! This is the reason why few managed to discover this place. Who would have guessed that someone was hiding under the rocks in the dense forest? As I crossed the long corridor bent to one side, I found it hard to breathe: the corridor was narrow, dark, freezing and damp. The space inside is built next to the massive rocks, under which there is a source. It is said that this source has never dried out. The missionaries spent years in this place: during the day they hid in the cave, at night they secretly went to the villages at the foot of the mountain to encourage the faithful and celebrate mass.
The Maria Rosa Mystica Sanctuary
The Maria Rosa Mystica Sanctuary of Changle is about 100km from Bishop Bai’s grotto in Gangkou. The construction of this villa-sanctuary was an arduous undertaking. The nuns explained to us that Bishop Zheng Chang-zheng purchased this land with the excuse of needing a place to live after retirement, and from there he began construction from scratch. It is also said that Bishop Zheng, amid so many difficulties, managed to find a statue of the Most Holy Virgin Mary. While reflecting on how he could express his gratitude, the bishop heard a voice during the prayer that said “place it in a high place”, hence the idea of building the Maria Rosa Mystica Sanctuary. The nuns told us about many miracles that occurred in the Villa. I can’t remember them all and I only put that in writing here. The Maria Rosa Mystica Sanctuary also has a spring, whose water is fresh and pure. When there are many pilgrims who come to get holy water, the spring continues to flow like drops of tears, however, when there are few pilgrims, the spring water never flows out of the well. The nuns indicated it to us, and the well has no drain!
The faithful who often go to Bishop Bai’s grotto have told us that they have never been to the Maria Rosa Mystica Sanctuary. Despite being close, they were taught from an early age that not even when praying at home should one turn to the Villa. Although I can understand, I was still surprised. I asked with curiosity: “In all these years have you never been to the Maria Rosa Mystica Sanctuary not even for a picnic?”. They replied seriously: “No, if it weren’t for accompanying you this time, I would never have come here.” I asked, “And what did you think of it?” They replied: “All shrines are good!”.
When there were still no churches, there was a time when even mass at home had become unsafe. The priests therefore decided to celebrate on the beach, facing the sea. It was celebrated at dawn and all the faithful flocked; there were that little ones who, knowing that it was a question of attending mass, were so enthusiastic that no one could stop them. The faithful said, “Father, we were so full of enthusiasm.”
Before taking office, Bishop Lin in his letter to priests and faithful stressed 8 points for priests, among which there are some that I consider important and realistic:
1) The normal functioning of the power of the bishop. 3) Freedom for the Church in faith and formation activities. 4) The normal functioning of existing religious places. 8) As for that small part of priests who have not submitted civil registration to the government, they are priests of my diocese, and I respect their decision of conscience .
“From Bishop Bai’s grotto to the Maria Rosa Mystica Sanctuary” is only a metaphor: if the Qing emperors had not prohibited evangelization, most likely there would not have even been a grotto; if there had been no restrictive policies towards faith, the taking of office would not have been delayed by 20, 30 years. But also for this reason numerous requests had to be made, the only desire is that freedom and the rights of faith can be guaranteed.
With regards the possible renewing of the Agreement, Msgr. Celli said that for some situations “it is not an easy path, but it seems to me that we have taken a path built on respect, attention, trying to understand each other to see how to solve those knots that remain, those situations that leave one more than thoughtful, I would also say concerned.”
In truth, it is sufficient that the fundamental demands are not forgotten amid these positive elements. Only in this way can we truly begin a path of “respect, attention” and mutual understanding. At the same time, [it is necessary that] “those problems” and “situations of concern” must not translate into sacrifice and offerings made exclusively by the Chinese Catholic faithful. Only in this way can we truly realise the hopes of the Holy See, so “the Chinese Catholic can express all their fidelity to the Gospel with respect for their being Chinese. A Catholic Church in China must be fully Chinese, but it must also be fully Catholic and in our journey we must all be faithful to the Gospel “, neither of the two characteristics must be lacking.
The demolished crosses
A brother priest told me of his concerns: “The cross above my parish will probably be torn down. How I wish I could be safe! The government often asks for our obedience under any pretext. Like that time at Easter, during the epidemic, when they came to remove the cross above a centuries old church. Tell me: why would they do this? What is the point of removing the cross? An act that harms others for benefit of oneself is somewhat comprehensible, but an act that is not of benefit to either side, would this be the true meaning of local religious policies? I haven’t slept well for days, if they insist on removal we can’t do anything. I think I will have to make a sacrifice for the Holy See! However, I fear that the faithful will not make it … “.
The words of this brother priest were true. I had no words of comfort, as there are many cases where there is still a lot of pain. How much I wish there were no more suffering in Fujian. But many mock these simple hopes of mine! I am now beginning to believe that they are hopeless, as for this article: in my heart I keep telling myself that I didn’t have to write it, but then between one thing and another I finished it anyway. I only went to Bishop Bai’s Grotto once and I’m so in love with it that I can’t forget it: I keep going down! I trust God a lot more than man! When man is as reliable as God, I will perhaps stop being so naive!
[i] (1247-1328) Franciscan missionary in China and the first bishop of Beijing in 1309/11. He is declared blessed, but many faithful in China already consider him a saint.
[ii] Jesuit (1582-1649), continuer of Matteo Ricci’s work, who arrived in China in 1610.
[iii] With the Sino-Vatican Agreement in 2018, the ordinary bishop of Mindong, underground Guo Xijin agreed to be demoted to auxiliary bishop, leaving the place of ordinary to Zhan Silu, from whom Pope Francis lifted excommunication, having been ordained without papal mandate. At present, however, Guo Xijin is not recognized by the Chinese government. See AsiaNews, 13/12/2018, “Mindong: Msgr. Guo Xijin, underground bishop, gives way to formerly excommunicated Msgr. Zhan Silu“.
[iv] The Sino-Vatican Agreement, signed on 22 September 2018, is valid for two years.
[v] In a recent interview with a television channel, Msgr. Claudio M. Celli would have said: “we have signed an agreement which is the result of the new climate that has been created with the Chinese authorities, an atmosphere of respect, made of clarity, built on co-responsibility, foresight. We don’t just look at the present but we try to look to the future, and to give the future of our relationships a deep, respectful basis and I would say that we are working in this direction “.