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Catholic conclave abides in Tibetan village

Updated: 2013-10-05 07:35
By Liu Xiangrui, Wang Huazhong and Daqiong ( China Daily)

Historic church restored as worship continues, Liu Xiangrui, Wang Huazhong and Daqiong report.

As usual the church bell rings at 7:40 pm. Its deep tones resonate throughout the valley, clearly heard in surrounding villages. Locals arrive after supper. Mothers carry children on their backs, husbands bring their wives on motorbikes and seniors walk together.

They take time to chat in the hall outside before entering the church at 8:30 pm.

As devotees in traditional Tibetan clothes hold crosses before their chests and recite Christian prayers, it is easy to get confused about where you are.

 Catholic conclave abides in Tibetan village

Maria, 61, a Catholic, cleans her home at the Upper Yanjing village. She visits the church everyday. Kuang Linhua / China Daily

The religious assembly has been going on for more than a century in Upper Yanjing village, Markam county, eastern Tibet autonomous region. It is home to the only Catholic church and followers in Tibet.

Set on a mountain ridge, the church was rebuilt in 2002. Its architecture is typically Tibetan with ornamental eaves in colorful patterns. It would be hard to tell it is a church except for the big cross on its upper facade.

But the interior is in Western style with a high vaulted roof. Even so, some Tibetan and Buddhist elements have been used. Hada blessing silks and traditional tangka painted with holy icons are common.

A middle-aged woman from Yunnan province now lives alone in the church. Besides cleaning work, she also rings the bell every day to call villagers to prayer.

About 80 percent of the local population - slightly more than 700, most of them Tibetans - are Catholics, according to village chief Soinam Wangmo.

"The belief is basically passed down within families and the number has been relatively stable in recent years," she said.

Two French missionaries brought Catholicism to the area in 1865. Historians say the pair succeeded because they wisely adapted to local conditions.

Staying first with villagers, they gave free medical treatment and helped the poor. They also offered alms to a local Buddhist monastery and won permission from monks and devotees to start missionary work.

They soon purchased land from the monastery and built a church. Their charitable efforts included handing out land to local farmers, helping them build houses, taking in orphans and the poor, and establishing a school and clinic.

The work gradually fostered a few Catholic believers among the villagers who had been Buddhists.

Catholic traditions

Families in the village keep the Bible and other works translated into Tibetan language by foreign missionaries at home. They recite the Bible and psalms in the local dialect during gatherings.

Though their daily life is not different from the Buddhists in the area, they follow Catholic traditions in funerals and names of their children.

A separate cemetery near the village is the resting place for many local Catholics.

Villagers normally invite a priest from Yunnan to perform funeral ceremonies. A tombstone with the deceased's name differs from the Buddhist tradition of no such markers.

Lorendy, 43, was the first Catholic priest in Tibet since the 1940s.

Raised in a Catholic family, he was trained at the Chinese Catholic Academy of Theology and Philosophy in Beijing.

He returned and became a priest in 1996, ending a long period of there being no priest in Upper Yanjing. Before the 1940s, 17 foreign priests had served at the church.

He was mainly involved in performing Catholic ceremonies such as funerals.

"It's been a tradition that Buddhists follow their own ways while we Catholics do it in the Catholic way," Lorendy explained.

But ceremonies too have inevitably absorbed local features, he added.

When a new statue is completed in the church, Catholic villagers offer hada just as Buddhists do.

Weddings are normally held at home. The ceremony is simple, usually having senior Catholics recite passages from the Bible. Lorendy's niece Mary is one of the few who had a wedding ceremony following Catholic customs in the church. Her husband is also a Catholic.

"We had heard about such weddings before. But no one had really seen one," recalled Mary, now 35.

She said the church was packed with people that day. "I felt nervous, but it was also very special."

Two religions

In Upper and Lower Yanjing, it's not difficult to find families whose members have different beliefs.

Like many Tibetan homes, Zaxi Wangdui's living room has a shrine. But the figures are of Christ and the Madonna. Zaxi Wangdui's Buddha statue sits on the left side of the shrine. He is a Buddhist devotee, while his wife Maria and their three children are Catholics.

Maria's family has a long Catholic tradition. Maria is both her Christian name and name in daily use. Many other people in the village have Christian names, she said.

In traditional Tibetan attire, the 61-year-old visits the church every morning. She also prays before the saints' images at home every morning and evening.

From behind the Buddha statue, Zaxi Wangdui takes out his Buddhist scriptures and chants them every night.

"We have gotten used to it and are always at peace. We understand and help each other, and I don't mind being the religious minority in the family," Zaxi Wangdui said with a smile.

He joins Maria in church activities when a priest visits and every Christmas he volunteers to cook at the church. He and other Buddhist villagers also participate in the celebration dance.

Maria helps cook meals and takes off all her hair decorations according to local Buddhist tradition when Zaxi Wangdui invites lamas home for prayer.

There are adaptations when people of different beliefs form a new family, Zaxi Wangdui said.

When Zaxi Wangdui's Buddhist relatives visited their home in the past, he would inform them about some Catholic customs, including not eating meat on Fridays.

"But few young people here consider religious differences a problem when they marry," Soinam Wangmo said.

In the past, Zaxi Wangdui's children went either with Maria to church for prayer or with him on pilgrimage to the monastery.

"As parents, we don't interfere with their religious beliefs. We'll just let them decide it when they grow up," Zaxi Wangdui explained.

Best days

Catholicism in Yanjing has experienced many setbacks throughout history. During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, missionaries in the region were expelled.

According to 94-year-old Ani, the village's eldest Catholic, confrontation between religions was a problem when she was young.

At one time, a local Buddhist monastery tried to stop residents from believing in Catholic teachings, while Catholic families in Upper Yanjing wouldn't accept Buddhists as family members, she said.

The last major conflict between the monastery and the church happened in the 1940s. The priest was killed by armed monks as they tried to expel him. The monastery took over the church and forced Catholics to give up their Christian names.

Ani became a nun at age 14. But she was stopped by local monks and Buddhist followers from becoming part of the clergy in a Yunnan church where she studied for three years.

Through mediation by the local government, the church became a religious site again in 1951 and the two religions entered an era of coexistence. Catholic followers increased significantly after this.

"The situation is now totally different. As a minority, Catholics enjoy more respect from local Buddhists," Ani said.

"Today the monastery invites representatives of the church when they hold big religious activities and the Catholics invite people from the monastery to celebrate during important events like Christmas."

The free religious atmosphere has made it possible for Rongwangna, wife of Ani's nephew, to finally openly convert to her own beliefs.

Rongwangna grew up in a traditional Buddhist family. After marrying Ani's nephew, the 45-year-old found most people in the village were Catholics.

She was kept busy by farm work and had to help take care of Ani, who has a problem in walking. She had few chances to visit the distant Buddhist monastery.

She often accompanied Ani to the church and with her help came to understand Catholic teachings and gradually adopted the faith.

"My parents agreed," Rongwangna said. "The two religions have much in common. Both call for mercy and ask us to help the needy. So it's not as difficult to convert as some imagine."

Ani said she is pleased to see the great improvement in the church environment.

For a long time villagers gathered in the homes of church members and then at a small empty bungalow, then in the dilapidated old church when the number of followers increased in the late 1980s, she recalled.

With government funding and other aid nationwide, the village spent 4.5 million yuan ($730,000) to rebuild the church in 2002.

Ani, who lives with her sister's family, still visits the refurbished church in her wheelchair every morning.

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