The Cost of Discipleship

Catholicism in China


On Tuesday, July 31, 1900, an army of Manchu soldiers, Boxers, and Tibetan monks in yellow robes besieged the North Cathedral in Beijing and launched a volley of arrows with an attached message. They had begun their attack a month earlier with the cry, "Sha, Sha, Kill! Kill! Shao, Shao, Burn! Burn!" (Pierre-Marie-Alphonse Favier, C.M., The Heart of Pekin, 24). The message to the Chinese converts inside the church was dreadful:

You, Christians, shut up in the North Cathedral, reduced to the greatest misery . . . We have leveled cannon and set mines against you, and you will be destroyed in a short time . . . deliver up Bishop Favier and the others [i.e., European missionaries] and you will have saved your lives. . . . If you do not do so, you, your wives and children, will all be cut to pieces. (The Heart of Pekin, 48)

The threat was not idle; while most of the 3,200 Chinese and European Catholics in the North Cathedral survived this siege, tens of thousands of Catholics elsewhere were indeed "cut to pieces" during the violence of the Boxer Uprising in 1900. For China’s Catholics this event is but one in a long history of struggle and persecution.

On July 9, 1947, during the war between the Communist and Nationalist armies, Communist troops overwhelmed Our Lady of Consolation Monastery at Yangjiaping and took captive the community of monks. They were forced on a death march, during which many perished from mistreatment. In the end, as Fr. M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O. recounts, the remaining monks were "stretched out on flat rocks and had their heads broke open with jagged stones" (Twentieth-Century Martyrs of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, 21).

On February 28, 1951, Communist forces invaded another Chinese Cistercian abbey, Our Lady of Joy; the monks there also were tortured and killed.

To understand the Church in China one must know its history because events such as these are often invoked in discussions with Chinese Catholics about living the faith in their native country. The Chinese, as they will tell you, must find Christ through waves of struggle.

The Gospel Arrives

The first Catholic missionary to China was the Franciscan friar, Bl. John of Montecorvino, O.F.M. (1246-1328), who arrived in 1293. The Mongol Khan welcomed him warmly, and the Italian friar was able to establish a flourishing Catholic community in China’s capital. John was consecrated the first Catholic bishop in China and built a church beside the Khan’s imperial palace. He trained young Chinese boys to chant in Greek and Latin, and in a letter to Europe he boasted that, "the Lord Emperor [Khan] takes much delight in their singing. And I ring the bells for all the Hours and sing the divine office with a choir of ‘sucklings and infants’" (qtd. in Christopher Dawson, The Mongol Mission, 225). John died in 1328, and without his energy and charisma the Catholic Church in China faded; it had completely vanished by 1368 and was not rekindled until the arrival of the Jesuits in the late Ming (1368-1644).

The most famous Catholic to live in China was the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, S.J. (1552-1610), who brought both God and science to the Middle Kingdom; China’s government today celebrates only the latter. Ricci’s exceptional brilliance and mastery of the Chinese language set a high standard for the Jesuit confreres who followed him. Some of China’s most famous mathematicians, astronomers, and cartographers are European Jesuits who replaced Ricci’s honored position in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Beijing’s South Cathedral is now located on the site of Ricci’s former residence, and as Chinese Catholics enter its courtyard they bow reverently in front of his statue. Ricci’s tomb, ironically located on the campus of Beijing’s Communist Party School, is visited by a stream of admiring Chinese. On my last visit I met several members of the "underground" community praying there for his intercession. It is paradoxically revered both by non-believers as a site of China’s scientific advancement and by Catholics as a pilgrimage site.

The Jesuits were later joined by other missionaries such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Lazarists, Benedictines, Foreign Missions of Paris, and the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions. All suffered tragic losses in 1900 during the Boxer Uprising, an anti-Christian, anti-foreign movement that resulted in the massacres of thousands of faithful and the wholesale destruction of Catholic churches, seminaries, hospitals, and orphanages. Ricci’s tomb and 200 other Catholic graves in Beijing were desecrated in 1900, and the Catholic community of the church beside it was slaughtered and buried in the ground near Ricci’s grave. The years from 1898 to 1900 were filled with unprecedented suffering for Catholics in China, but order was restored in late 1900, churches were refurbished, and the Church again flourished.

The Rise of Communism

Catholics enjoyed a few decades of relative peace after 1900. Beijing alone had more than 40 churches by the 1930s; today there are only six left. With the rise of Communism, persecution of Catholics resumed. In 1946 the Vatican sent Archbishop Antonio Riberi (1897-1967) to China, and in 1947 Riberi forbade all Catholics in China from any involvement in any Communist organization. The Communist Party’s reaction was fierce, and as Richard Madsen recounts, "An explicit proclamation of anti-Communism was an invitation to martyrdom" (China’s Catholics, 36).

Catholic missionaries were expelled from China, and by 1955 thousands of Catholics had been arrested, including China’s most powerful prelate, the bishop of Shanghai, Gong Pinmei (Cardinal Kung, 1901-2000). Kung spent 30 years in Communist prisons for refusing to sever his ties with the Vatican.

The Communist government established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 1957, which remains the only Catholic community officially allowed to exist in China’s borders. The sanctioned Catholic community under the auspices of the Catholic Patriotic Association is compelled to elect bishops without the Pope’s approval. As a result, there are now both an official "aboveground Church" and an "underground Church." While the relationship between these two communities has recently improved, divisions still remain intense.

We Know Who You Are

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), however, all Catholics, no matter which community they were in, were forced into hiding. As Bishop Wang Chongyi told me in an interview, during the Cultural Revolution, "No matter where you looked or how hard you searched, you could not see a Catholic anywhere; the faith was in their hearts, invisible to the outside."

Catholics in China recall that it was not until around 1989 that the Church began to recover. In an interview with the choir director from North Church in Beijing, Mr. Ma Fangji ("Francis"), I was told that there were mixed feelings when the churches were reopened. Chinese officials stood at the doors to take names and request everyone who entered to demonstrate the sign of the cross; those who could not were assumed not to be Catholic and were not admitted. The message was clear: The government was allowing Mass to be offered, but it was also keeping a record of who attended, and non-Catholics were to stay away. For those who had lived through the previous decades, the idea of rendering their names to the authorities was frightening.

I recently interviewed two bishops in Guiyang, China, who recounted their experiences through China’s Maoist era, Bishop Wang Chongyi, a Vatican-approved bishop in the "aboveground" community, and Bishop Hu Daguo, a bishop in the "underground." Bishop Wang noted that during the 1960s, bishops, priests, and nuns were forced to laicize and ordered to apostatize. Red Guards or Party officials beat them; Wang was himself "struggled against" and ordered to abandon his Catholic faith. Since he refused to apostatize, the Communist authorities condemned him to hard labor, which he described as a time of terrible hardship. Bishop Wang knew other priests who were tortured; some were buried alive while asserting their Catholic faith. "There were many martyrs during the Cultural Revolution who died for Christ," he said, "but they are now sadly forgotten to the world." Bishop Wang noted that, "If you were a Catholic you thought that the Church was over in China; you thought that there was no more Catholicism here."

His Name in our Hearts

After Mao’s death in 1976, the situation for Catholics improved somewhat, but the Patriotic Catholic Association still loomed over the clergy. They were not allowed to mention the pope’s name during Mass; the Chinese Church was to remain separate from Rome. "If we mentioned the pope’s name in Mass we were arrested by the police and put into jail, but when we got to the part in Mass where we were supposed to mention the pope’s name out loud, we mentioned him in our hearts. We remained faithful to the pope." Not all bishops remained loyal to Rome, however, and some used that time as an opportunity to gain political favor. Some priests ingratiated themselves to the Chinese government by disconnecting themselves with Rome, and a few even married to underscore their rejection of the pope. But this group was the exception; most of the priests and bishops who operated in the sanctioned community did so to "preserve the faith in China."

Other clergy, like Bishop Hu Daguo, chose to remain "underground" to preserve the faith. His is a particularly stirring account of struggle through the waves of persecution. During the Cultural Revolution Hu Daguo was a young and dutiful priest. Bishop Hu’s first words to me as I entered his humble, crowded room were " Ganxie Tianzhu! (Thanks be to God)." In fact, as we spoke he punctuated his speech with two phrases: "Thanks be to God" and "I am deeply grateful for God’s help." During the Cultural Revolution, 300 Red Guards arrested Hu, bound him in chords, placed a tall white dunce cap on his head, and presented him to a crowd for humiliation. He was denounced and physically abused. The mob demanded that he renounce his beliefs, and he was imprisoned for more than 20 years for refusing. In prison, Hu was not allowed to practice any aspect of his faith, so for more than two decades he could not receive Communion or go to confession. He used his fingers to pray his rosary and he remained loyal to the pope, despite constant pressure to be loyal only to "his homeland."

Like all Chinese priests who refused to apostatize during the Cultural Revolution, Hu was made to endure four methods of "re-education." First, he had to attend classes on Marxist thought; second, the government presented an attractive woman for him to marry; third, he was offered a high-salary position in the Party; fourth, he was physically tortured. Bishop Hu stayed steadfast in his faith, remained a celibate priest, and endured his tortures, which left him crippled and unable to stand erect. Bishop Hu’s final comments were on Communism, asserting that as long as Communism remains the official ideology of the government, Christians will continue to suffer and the truth will be distorted. The Patriotic Catholic Association, Bishop Hu suggested, has a corrupting influence on the Church in China.

History Is Off-Limits

While "underground" bishops are still today arrested and mistreated, and "aboveground" clergy remain closely watched by government officials, the official rhetoric of the Patriotic Catholic Association is that the Church has improved since its "independence" from Rome. The pro-government China Intercontinental Press recently published a book about Catholicism in China, which states that the Chinese Church "holds to independence in accordance with the Chinese situation . . ." (Zhou Tailiang and Li Hui, Catholic Church in China, viii). The new era described by the Patriotic Catholic Association is not only one in which the Chinese Catholics can now love "both the Church and the Nation" (Catholic Church in China, 17), but the book insists that it has never seen better times. What the Patriotic Catholic Association does not publicize is that the government’s official policy is eventually to eliminate religion, and that at present, Chinese clergy and faithful are forbidden from viewing materials related to China’s Catholic history held in official archives and libraries. Historical materials that were not destroyed during the Cultural Revolution are off-limits to Chinese Catholics; anything they are told about the Church in China is disseminated through official, Communist channels.

Despite obstacles, the Chinese faithful continue to practice their faith with unusual piety. During the 2008 Requiem Mass for the Holy Souls offered by Bishop Li Shan at Beijing’s Catholic cemetery, the first two prayers of the faithful were for the Church and its leader, Pope Benedict XVI. A decade ago such a public sign of connection to Rome would have brought the unwanted attention of the government; today the pope’s photograph and name are more openly displayed. This being so, the Chinese government remains adamant that the Vatican is an imperialist threat to Chinese sovereignty, a belief to which Pope Benedict XVI responded in his 2007 letter to the Church of China:

. . . the solution to existing problems cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities; at the same time, though, compliance with those authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church. The civil authorities are well aware that the Church in her teaching invites the faithful to be good citizens, respectful and active contributors to the common good in their country, but it is likewise clear that she asks the State to guarantee to those same Catholic citizens the full exercise of their faith, with respect for authentic religious freedom. (4)

The Holy Father reiterates the Church’s teaching that Catholics must be good citizens, but this responsibility is to be balanced with religious freedom, which China’s government only partially allows.

Beholden to the Communist Party

In fact, despite the growing number of priests enlisted into the Patriotic Catholic Association (which some view positively since it affords clergy a stronger voice in Church administration) the Association is still beholden to the Communist Party. Benedict recognizes in his letter that some "persons who are not ‘ordained,’ and sometimes not even baptized, control and take decisions concerning important ecclesial questions, including the appointment of bishops, in the name of various state agencies" (Letter to the Church in China, 8). The Patriotic Catholic Association is overseen by the Party’s Religious Affairs Bureau, which means that the government decides who is consecrated a bishop; those selected "by the people" are generally chosen for their compliance with the "party line."

Bishop Ma Yinglin’s 2006 government election to the episcopacy caused several renewed divisions in China’s Catholic community; the "aboveground" community must choose whether to follow a bishop who is not yet approved by the pope, or to join the "underground" community which does not support bishops not in regular communion with the Vatican. Official sources recognize about five million Catholics in China, but unofficial sources estimate an additional eight million faithful who remain "underground."

The state of the Chinese Church today is complex. It is forced to live a spiritual life awkwardly both connected and disconnected from Rome. It bears the signs of the Party’s presence in its administration, spiritual practice, and even on the walls of its churches. Government regulations for religious practice are posted in church foyers, and on the outside wall of Beijing’s West Church remains a large, faded, quote from Chairman Mao, painted there during the Cultural Revolution. Churchgoers are greeted by the slogan: "Chairman Mao said: ‘The central strength of our enterprise in China is Communism, and the guiding principle foundation of our ideology is Marxism and Leninism.’" So, while the Gospel is read inside the West Church, Mao’s invocation to follow Marx and Lenin is painted beside the church’s main entrance. While the Chinese clergy realize that there is no place for Communist ideology in the Catholic Church, such slogans are part of the Church’s turbulent history and its uncomfortable present.

Abundant Fruit

When Pope John Paul II canonized 110 Catholic martyrs of China, he recalled the words of Tertullian: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." The Pope’s message was clear; the foundation of the Church in China, like ancient Rome, was built on struggle and persecution, persecution that persists today. Times are better for Catholics in China today, but the Chinese authorities still monitor the doors of churches with surveillance cameras, the Chinese "aboveground" clergy must still report to the Communist-managed Patriotic Catholic Association, and the pope is still officially "forbidden" from selecting bishops or regulating Church activities. In China, the pope has a doctrinal, but not pastoral, voice in the day-to-day lives of Chinese Catholics. Catholics in more tolerant countries perhaps take their faith for granted; I have rarely witnessed piety equal to China’s struggling Catholics.

When one gets to know Chinese Catholics one inevitably hears stories of family members who were either killed or mistreated in the Boxer Uprising of 1900 or during the Maoist era of the 20th century. Suffering is part of being Catholic in China. As I walked near Ricci’s tomb in Beijing, an "underground" Catholic women who grew up in that neighborhood told me, "We who were raised here know that Boxers buried Catholic children in this spot." How has this history affected China’s Catholics? I have seen elderly women who can barely walk kneel piously in brick courtyards to pray; I have seen crowds of men and women praying in a cemetery for the holy souls in purgatory; and I have seen countless Chinese Catholics pray worn rosary beads before Mass. China’s Church, as it always has, transforms struggle into beautiful prayer. As Benedict said to the Church in China:

Keep in mind, moreover, that your path of reconciliation is supported by the example and the prayer of so many "witnesses of the faith" who have suffered and have forgiven, offering their lives for the future of the Catholic Church in China. Their very existence represents a permanent blessing for you in the presence of our Heavenly Father, and their memory will not fail to produce abundant fruit. (Letter to the Church in China, 6)


Anthony E. Clark is a frequent contributor to This Rock. He teaches history at Whitworth University.

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 3.