A growing faith in atheist China

By  Christl Dabu, Catholic Register Special
  • December 18, 2006
Bernadette Woo attended her first Mass at Christmas 2001BEIJING, China - They came clutching their shopping bags, curious newcomers who pushed and shoved their way to get a closer view. As regular worshippers celebrated in silence, the visitors chatted and filed in and out of the overflowing cathedral throughout the service.

The South Cathedral (Nan Tang) in Beijing  last Dec. 24 was more of a scene from a rock concert than a solemn Christmas Eve Mass. The church was even expecting so many more for the following midnight Mass that hundreds of tickets were handed out a week in advance.

As officially atheist China  continues opening its doors to the world and newfound wealth, many Chinese non-believers came to church out of curiosity for traditions celebrated in the West. But some came for deeper reasons, especially Chinese youth wanting more meaning in life beyond the race to get rich.

"I want to believe in a religion, but now I don't know which religion I should choose," said Alice Zhao, 24, who is interested in Christianity and attended her first Mass last year. "(Because) you want to be happy : through believing in a religion: When I go to Mass : my heart will be quiet."

It was love at first sight when Bernadette Woo attended her first Mass as a 15-year-old on Christmas 2001. Woo, now 20 and a professional working in  Beijing, said her life changed drastically after her Baptism in 2002.

Catholicism didn't only make her "heart soft," she said. "After I became a Catholic, I turned to learn healing," she said, describing her life before as "horrible, scary and miserable" as she felt hatred towards her stepmother. "I became much more responsible for my family and my own (self). I studied harder and started to think of my future."

She now tries to be a good example of a Christian to others, including her relatives, Chinese Communist Party members who at first didn't approve of her Baptism but now accept her.

For Kevin Wei, 25, a Canadian singer drew him to Christianity. Wei, a technician at the Beijing Institute for Cancer, was a senior in high school in the late 1990s during entrance exams for college and university when he listened to a tape of "The Prayer," Celine Dion's duet with Andrea Bocelli. "Every time when I listen to the music, I just feel much relieved," said Wei, who was baptized as a Catholic this May.

He said he learned more about Catholicism, and he kept praying when his father's health grew worse after suffering a stroke in 1997. When his father recovered, he later believed as a newly baptized Catholic that it wasn't only because of the traditional Chinese medicine but also his prayers. "He was healed," he said, "because he was incurable."

Fr. Francis Xavier Zhang, parish priest of South  Cathedral and vice-secretary of the Beijing Catholic Patriotic Association,  the official state-sanctioned church, noticed the growing interest in faith among  Chinese. He said now that people in Beijing are very urbanized, hedonistic and materialistic, they turn to  religion because they "need to fill the spiritual vacuum," especially those in the big cities where the mentality is more open to religion rather than in the poorer countryside where their main concern is survival. Another appeal of the Catholic Church, he adds, is it  is universal and "erudite."

The church in  China has grown threefold since 1949, with about 18 million Catholics today, according to the U.S. Catholic China Bureau. Zhang said in  Beijing there are 2,000 to 3,000 baptisms each year. From the new Catholic converts at South Cathedral, he noted, 88 per cent are people aged 17-40. He also pointed to  globalization as a reason for this growth.

"Beijing is more open and internationalized," he said. "I think the future of Catholicism in  Beijing will be marvelously  bright:.  Beijing will open more to the world, and the 2008 Olympic Games will bring more (Chinese) people who will be interested (in God)."

At South Cathedral, he said, many Chinese  non-believers are joining English classes as well as catechism and youth groups, which offer the church the opportunity to evangelize. Church weddings have even become popular at  South Cathedral for many Chinese non-believers, he added.

"There are so many different approaches to proclaiming the good news  of God. That's why Catholics and the Catholic Church are growing very quickly in  China," said  Zhang.

Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, director of Rome-based AsiaNews agency service and a Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions priest who lived in  China for seven years, said Pope Benedict XVI's priority is to revive faith in  Europe and the West, but the  Vatican also has its sights set on  China. 

"It is a very interesting situation because although the church (in China) is persecuted, there is a religious revival and a flood of conversions to Christianity," he said in an interview from  Rome.  

He said that curiosity about Christianity and the Catholic Church is widespread among the Chinese people today, with many conversions in  China among intellectuals, scholars, university students, young professionals and small entrepreneurs.

A study found more than 60 per cent of university students in  Beijing and Shanghai say they are interested in Christianity. However, some analysts note there is more interest in Protestant Christianity than in Catholicism. A secret document of the Communist Party, Cervellerra added, reveals that one-third of members belong to some secret religious organizations.

"The people are dissatisfied with the capitalist wave, and disillusioned with Marxism. The poor seek consolation; the martyrs inspire enthusiasm. All this leads to the search for stable values and the profound meaning of life," he wrote. "A Chinese bishop said to me not long ago: 'This is a rich period for evangelization.' "

More Chinese may be interested in Christianity, but  Cervellera said it's urgent for the Catholic Church in China  to reach out to Chinese because the government is closing the doors on religious education while promoting atheism in schools and the mass media.

Jasper Becker, author and former Beijing  correspondent for The Guardian who lives in Beijing, noted that the Chinese government doesn't want to tolerate the growth of organized religion, seen as a threat to its power. Thus, religious freedom advocates say the Chinese government continues its tight control on religion, especially cracking down on unregistered religious groups such as the unofficial or "underground" Catholic Church.

In  China there is an unofficial or "underground"  Catholic community which is considered illegal because it isn't

registered with authorities, and the state-sanctioned official church  which is under the government's control. Nevertheless, analysts say the divisions have become blurred and the  Vatican considers the  official and unofficial church in China  as one and is working to unite them.  But tensions arise because unlike the unofficial church which is loyal to the  Vatican, the official church in some matters can't recognize the authority of the Pope, though he is seen as its spiritual leader. Moreover, official clergy must support government policies that sometimes contradict with Catholic teaching such as artificial contraception for  China's one-child policy, and the Chinese government still has final say on the appointment of official bishops. However, most of the official church bishops and clergy are now in communion with the Pope.  

 ": a lot of people want to turn to religion, but because of (the Chinese government's) restrictions, the unwillingness to recognize independent or underground churches or the authority of the Pope, the Catholic Church is stifled," Becker  said in an interview in Beijing.

 But Chinese officials dismiss the claims calling for more religious freedom in  China, citing a growth in the numbers of believers, religious sites and clergy.

Shanghai's Catholics

A cluster of elderly Shanghainese clasp their hands and keep still in prayer before a picture of Pope John Paul II and a row of candles. After a young Chinese woman takes her turn to pray before the candles at the front of the church, one of the elderly women tells her it's nice to have faith when you're young. Rows of mostly silver-haired Shanghainese worshippers fill the pews, as they listen with reverence to the liturgy and hymns of the Shanghainese dialect at the Xujiahui Cathedral during the  8 a.m. Sunday mass.

Although most parishioners in Xujiahui are middle-aged Shanghainese, Fr. Joseph Lu said in Shanghai most of the Catholic converts are young people from their 20s to early 30s, who are also active in the church community, such as in volunteering to welcome visitors at the cathedral.

He added that for the midnight  Christmas mass, it's common for the Xujiahui Cathedral to be overflowing, with 3,000 to 4,000 people at the 1,500-seat church, a huge number who weren't Catholics. It's a phenomenon he has noticed for the past 20 years.

Lu said each year Xujiahui, the main cathedral and the biggest one in  Shanghai, has seen hundreds of baptisms, a slight increase in new converts in the city, over the past five to six years despite the challenge of materialism facing the church in  China. "The community is growing," he said in an interview in  Shanghai. "We always have big numbers of people getting baptized. This church (in Xujiahui) is a central place attracting people to come."

Lu is the parish priest for the international community at St. Peter's Catholic Church in the  Shanghai diocese. The church's goal and focus this year, he said, is evangelization.  He said the church recently held a conference to mark the 500th birthday of St. Francis Xavier at the bishop's residence at the Xujiahui Cathedral. "It's a relevant occasion," he explained, "because St. Francis Xavier wanted to evangelize the Chinese  : so we tried to follow in his footsteps to be more active and fruitful in evangelization."

The church in Shanghai  is aiming to begin more activities in the parishes, he added, in tackling the "urgency of evangelization."

"We encourage lay people to bring good news to non-believers, to try to introduce them to the church," he said. "This is just like the beginning."

(Dabu is a Toronto-based journalist who recently worked in Beijing,  Shanghai and Hong Kong  for a year.)


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