Spreading the Faith Where Faith Itself Is Suspect
By Andrew Jacobs, NY Times, July 10, 2012
BEIJING—The Rev. Peter Liu Yongbin, a wireless microphone tethered to his head, gazed out over his prospective converts and plowed into the ABCs of Roman Catholic faith. He offered a roughly abridged version of Abraham’s family tree, the benefits of frequent confession and a quick guide to church hierarchy. “Think of the pope as equivalent to the minister of a government bureaucracy,” he explained.
Then came the pop quiz. What if China were to experience another Cultural Revolution, the traumatic decade of Maoist zealotry during which religious adherents were persecuted?
“If a Red Guard puts a knife to your throat and tells you to renounce your faith, what should you do?” he asked the five dozen initiates, all of them weeks away from baptism. After an awkward silence, Father Liu blurted out the answer: “Never give it up,” he said, his eyes widening for effect. “Your devotion should be to God above all else.”
Such sentiments might be a mainstay of Christian belief but they border on treasonous in China, an officially atheist state that demands fealty to the Communist Party. The pope might be a ranking minister, but according to the party’s thinking, President Hu Jintao is Catholicism’s supreme leader, at least here in China.
As a priest at an officially sanctioned government church—as opposed to the legion of illicit unofficial congregations—Father Liu struggles to balance his faith with the often-intrusive dictates of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the omnipotent government body that oversees religious life for China’s 12 million Roman Catholics. (Nearly half of China’s Catholics are thought to attend underground churches.)
It is a balancing act shared by the leadership of China’s four other official religions—Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism—who must answer both to state authority and the exigencies of their faith.
An irascible but deeply contemplative man whose knowledge of Marxist dogma rivals his command of biblical verse, Father Liu, 46, is quick to praise the past three decades of increasing openness that has paved the way for religious revival across the land. But even as he declares himself steadfastly apolitical, he acknowledges that these are trying times for state-supervised clergy members.
“Sometimes the political pressures are exhausting,” he said as he sat in his church office only a few blocks from the closed compound housing China’s leadership. The walls of his office are dominated by a Chinese flag and a crucifix.
Such pressures have been rising as Beijing and the Vatican engage in an increasingly combative struggle over the appointment of bishops. After several years of quiet negotiation and a tacit agreement to jointly name Chinese bishops, the Patriotic Association has since 2010 consecrated four bishops over the Vatican’s objections, including Joseph Yue Fusheng, who was ordained Friday in the northern city of Harbin.
Rome responded with an automatic excommunication.
The drama intensified on Saturday, when the Rev. Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the newly installed auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, stunned his congregation by announcing his resignation from the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. “In the light of the teaching of our mother church, as I now serve as a bishop, I should focus on pastoral work and evangelization,” Bishop Ma told the crowded church. “Therefore, from this day of consecration, it will no longer be convenient for me to be a member of the patriotic association.”
The announcement, captured on video and posted on foreign and Chinese Web sites, was met with sustained applause from the congregation. Father Ma, who did not lead Mass on Sunday as scheduled, has not been heard from since. China has responded to the impasse with bravado, calling the recent excommunications “unreasonable and rude” and suggesting that it will continue to unilaterally fill as many as 40 vacant bishop seats. The Patriotic Association declined to comment for this article, as did the Vatican.
Catholic leaders who have spent years fostering détente between Rome and Beijing worry about the possibility of a catastrophic schism, something avoided during the darkest days of the Communist Party’s war on religion.
“It’s a very critical situation; I haven’t seen things so bad in 50 years,” said the Rev. Jeroom Heyndrickx, founder of an institute at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium that promotes dialogue between China and the church. “All the years of cooperation and progress have been torn to pieces.”
It is not entirely clear what went wrong. The animus, fed by an age-old narrative that paints the Vatican as a foreign interloper, is never far beneath the surface. But analysts suggest party hard-liners may be taking advantage of the political stasis that has preceded the once-a-decade leadership change scheduled for later this year.
Many religious leaders both in China and abroad say the effort to turn Catholics away from the pope have largely failed. The Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, editor in chief of AsiaNews, an official Vatican news service, said the government’s recent ordinations had angered many ordinary Catholics. “I would say there’s a kind of resistance against these bishops, with the faithful refusing to attend religious ceremonies when they are present,” he said.
The conflict is reflected in Father Liu’s church, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which dates back to 1605, when Wanli, the Ming dynasty Emperor, permitted the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci to build a residence and small chapel near the site of the current church. More commonly known by its Chinese name, Nantang, or South Cathedral, it has a storied but turbulent past. Repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes and fires, it was burned down during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and closed for much of the Cultural Revolution. In 1971, the soaring, gray-brick Baroque cathedral was quietly reopened for foreign diplomats, and less than a decade later, to Chinese.
Home to Beijing’s bishop, the church ministers to a fast-growing congregation, much of it increasingly young, college-educated and hungry for a moral antidote to China’s rampant materialism and corruption. Like many members, Liu Bin, 25, said he felt wounded by the government’s increasing antagonism toward Rome. “The Vatican to me is like Mecca is to the Muslims,” said Mr. Liu, a software designer. “The pope is essential to our faith.”
Father Liu’s days are long, with the first Mass starting at 6 a.m. and the last one, a lively musical youth service on weekends, ending at 8:30 p.m. Some days he officiates at eight weddings, most of them for agnostic couples entranced by the pomp and the European-style architecture. During Christmas, traffic in front of the church snarls as 20,000 people pour through the nave. Father Liu estimates that three-fourths of those who come are drawn by the music and the costumed Santas.
“Most Chinese people have no idea what Christianity is,” Father Liu said, looking rumpled after a particularly hectic weekend. “They’ll come here to get married, and then go off to a Buddhist temple.”
Not that he minds. In fact, the $450 he receives for each wedding helped pay for radiators last year, alleviating bitterly cold services where supplicants’ fingers would sometimes stick to frozen chalices.
Drawing the curious is good for other reasons: it is one of the few ways the church can legally proselytize. Rigorous state control means that China has no Christian radio shows; Bibles cannot be sold at bookstores or passed out on the street. Religious organizations are barred from accepting foreign donations for charitable work.
“We have to beg the government to do anything,” he said, yanking at his collar for effect. “Their attitude is, ‘You should be happy we allow you to exist.’ It’s not like in the West where all your political leaders are already Christian.”
Like many Catholic clerics, Father Liu comes from a family of the faithful. Before the Cultural Revolution forced a name change, his hometown in Shanxi Province was called New Catholic Village. Since 1949, it has produced 25 priests, 30 nuns and a bishop. “I learned to say the word ‘Lord’ before I could say ‘Mama,’ ” he said.
A cocky, longhaired troublemaker in his youth, he says he was largely oblivious to religion until, one day after graduating from high school, he suddenly felt the calling. He shaved his head, started wearing suits and immersed himself in the Bible. After four years studying philosophy in Beijing, he entered the seminary with the help of a bishop impressed by his charisma and intellect. “The church prefers extroverts like me because others tend to follow us,” he said.
But government strictures on religion and the continuing battle between Rome and the Communist Party have tested his faith. Sometimes, he said, he dreams of living abroad.
Experts say that clerical celibacy and the strife between the Vatican and Beijing have made it harder for Catholicism to compete with the rapidly growing Protestant faith, which has five times as many adherents. “In the Protestant Church, anyone can be a pastor and you don’t have a problem with the pope, who is considered a so-called foreign power,” said Father Cervellera of AsiaNews.
Despite the challenges, Father Liu is optimistic about Catholicism’s future in China. Religion will outlast any political party, he says, and then there is the sheer number of the unaffiliated. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “there are at least 1.2 billion people here waiting to be converted.”