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Catholicism brings meaning to lives of many Chinese
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-06-21 09:07

Chen Guozhong commutes from his home to the Nantang Cathedral in Beijing every morning for Mass. He is among the few Catholics in the Chinese capital who were baptized at birth.

Chinese Catholics sing a song at Christmas Eve Mass, 2002. The number of Catholics in China has increased to 5.2 million from 3 million in 1940, and about 70,000 people are baptized every year. [file photo]
The 67-year-old retired technician was born to a Catholic family, whose religious history, Chen says, dates many generations back to the period when Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), an Italian missionary, came to China to spread the gospel.

Chen seldom went to church before retirement. Because Jixian County, where he used to live, was about 60 kilometres east of Beijing, it was difficult for him to attend church activities when he was young. When he grew up, he moved to Northeast China, where there was no nearby church to attend.

Even so, Chen never forgot he was a Catholic and always followed Catholic teachings. In the eyes of his colleagues and neighbours, Chen is easy-going, generous and forgiving. His behaviour has influenced relatives and colleagues, many of whom have been converted to Catholicism.

Nowadays, Chen devotes most of his time to religious activities. He goes to Mass and reads the Bible every day. On Sundays he shares his feelings and experiences with his fellow Catholics.

"Even if there is no paradise, I am still grateful to Catholicism for having given me a peaceful life filled with tolerance and love," Chen says, crossing himself.

Unlike Chen's experience, Zhang Huanzhi became a Catholic in 1994 after a quarrel. "I used to be hot-tempered and peevish," says the 70-year-old woman. As a result, she was not on good terms with her colleagues and relatives.

After losing her temper with her husband one women, the angry Zhang entered a nearby church to calm down. "I was touched by the harmonious atmosphere and friendly people there and decided to join them."

"Since becoming a Catholic, I've learned to love - to love my family, my neighbours and my enemies as well," she says. Her change has impressed many of her acquaintances as well as her husband.

Now she is an activist in the church. Apart from attending church and studying the Bible, she is also the organizer of her church's senior choir. "My life has become richer and more colourful thanks to my belief," she says.

Catholicism spread to China in the seventh century when the Tang Dynasty ruled the country. It remained a foreign belief with few followers until the 16th century when Ricci came to China. Thanks to the work of foreign missionaries like Ricci, the number of believers quickly increased. It exceeded 270,000 by 1670 when China's population was somewhere between 60 and 100 million, according to Anthony Liu Bainian, secretary-general of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Chinese perceptions of Catholicism began to change after the first Opium War in 1840. In the eyes of many people, the religion was connected with Western colonialism. The fact that foreign priests had all along run most of the churches in the country did not help, either.

Zhou Yiwen, with the State Administration of Religious Affairs, says:"These old perceptions cast a shadow on the development of Catholicism after 1949, even though the Chinese Constitution protects freedom of religious belief."

But the church has seen rigorous growth during the past two decades. Nationwide, the number of Chinese Catholics has increased to 5.2 million from 3 million in 1940, and about 70,000 people are baptized every year, according to Secretary-General Liu. In Beijing, Michael Fu Tieshan became first bishop of the Catholic church in China after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and the third Chinese to serve as bishop of the Beijing Diocese.

Compared with the number of believers, the clergy seem to be quite out of proportion. For a country with more than 90 dioceses, there are now only 70 bishops. And only 1,200 priests and 1,000 priestesses serve the great number of churches across the country. And it is not easy to train a priest, according to Paul Zhang Tianlu, deputy secretary-general of the Beijing Catholic Patriotic Association and priest of the Nantang Cathedral.

First of all, a priest has to be a graduate of a seminary. Paul Zhang himself studied at the Beijing Catholic Seminary for six years before becoming a priest. "Courses include theology, philosophy, science, literature, music, aesthetics and psychology," he says. Zhang is fluent in English, French and Latin, Latin being used for Mass.

At present, there are 12 seminaries in China with a combined enrolment of more than 2,000, according to Zhang. At 36, the priest is committed to lifelong celibacy. "Being a priest, you need to consecrate your whole life to the service of God," he says. Celibacy used to be the barrier thwarting him from becoming a priest as, according to Chinese tradition, it is unfilial for a man not to leave offspring for the family line. Fortunately, other members of the Zhang family are all Catholics, and in the end they understood and accepted his decision to become a priest.

But for Yang Le, 20, a first-year student of the Beijing Catholic Seminary, becoming a Catholic priest is more difficult, because he is from a Muslim family. Paul Zhang says, "This was unimaginable two decades ago when, according to church rules, priests could only come from traditional Catholic families."

About six years ago, Yang, then a middle school student, went into the Nantang Cathedral by chance. "At first, I just thought it interesting. But after attending several Masses, I became fascinated by the religion," said Yang.

From that time on, he began getting up at half past five every morning and going to the church for Mass, even during the time when his classmates were busy preparing for the high school entrance examinations.

The idea of becoming a priest popped into his mind three years ago, just when his family, teachers and peers expected him to land a good job after graduating from the Beijing Foreign Trade School. His decision astounded everybody. His mother rebuffed him.

In the following two years, the young man went through several "rounds of negotiations" with his family, and finally his parents gave in. He enrolled in the Catholic seminary.

When alone, Yang likes playing piano and humming hymns. "Catholicism has enriched my life," he says. "It is an undertaking worthy of my love and whole-hearted devotion."

And this love means action, according to Secretary-General Liu Bainian. "To gain love from our Lord, one should extend his love to his nation and fellows first," he says.

Guided by this principle, the Shanghai Diocese, together with the Shanghai Catholic Patriotic Association, has founded various charity groups to help local people, believers and non-believers alike,

For instance, the Health Consulting Group holds regular lectures and physical examinations for the elderly; believers from education circles have helped establish the Guangqi Foreign Languages School and Angela English Class for local citizens.

Yang, a freshman in the seminary, is still undecided as to exactly what he will do with his future. But he has always kept a close watch over vulnerable groups and has made up his mind to help people of his generation to live meaningful lives. "People should have a belief so as to live a meaningful life. By preaching the Gospels, I hope to make that possible for as many people as possible," he says.

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