China and the Church

Boston Globe
Sept. 11, 1994

Text and Photo by Robert O'Malley

Seminarians John Fei, left, Joseph Shen and Andrew Lu studied in Boston this summer.

Every morning and evening when he was a child, Andrew Lu's family followed the same private ritual. In the seclusion of their home, his aunt or his father would remove a picture of Jesus from its hiding place and attach it to the wall. It showed Jesus' "sacred heart" glowing through his garments. When the picture was secure, they would kneel down before it and start to pray. It was "very simple," he says, "the Our Father and the Hail Mary."

After the Prayer, we rolled up the picture," says Lu, 25, who with several other Chinese seminarians spent the summer living at the Chinese Catholic Pastoral Center in Boston's Chinatown. "You could not leave the picture on the wall." It was, he notes, the waning years of China's Cultural Revolution, a period when a portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong would have been the icon of choice in Chinese homes. It was also a period in which any trace of Western influence in the life of a Chinese citizen could lead to dire consequences.

During the Cultural Revolution, a time when belief in Chairman Mao's revolutionary ideas was at its peak among the country's youth, the practice of religion was restricted to the cloistered quiet of the home. "All the churches were closed," Lu says. "The church building was a factory or a cinema." In the years just after the 1949 communist revolution, "all the priests were imprisoned," he says. "If you were Catholic, you had trouble."

But times and attitudes in China have changed. The reforms of the post-Mao era allowed people to again practice religion openly and, in the early 1980s, led to the reopening of churches throughout the country. Today, Lu and more than 20 other Chinese men are students at Roman Catholic seminaries in the United States and an additional 24 are scheduled to arrive this year.

A former student at She Shan Seminary in Shanghai, Lu came to the United States a year ago for advanced study at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. He and the others are being trained to become teachers at the Shanghai seminary when they complete their studies here. They are being supported in part by the Maryknoll Fathers, a Catholic religious order that had a strong missionary presence in China before being forced to leave in the early '50s.

For Lu and other Chinese seminarians, Roman Catholicism is deeply rooted in their family histories. With Buddhism and the worship of local ancestral gods being the dominant religions in China, the number of Catholics is small; yet they are devout and deeply attached to their religion, the seminarians say.

Christianity had a presence in China as early as the 6th century, when the Nestorians, a heretical sect that originated in Constantinople, had a community in the then-Chinese capital of Xian, according to Rev. Denis Como, a Jesuit and the chaplain and director of the Chinese Catholic Pastoral center, and himself a teacher in China several years ago. Catholicism was also brought to China by Matteo Ricci, another Jesuit, whose scientific knowledge greatly impressed the Chinese, and by the many Christian missionary groups that followed over the years.

"My family for many generations has been Catholic," Lu says. "My grandfather's brother was a priest; my grandfather's sister was a nun." An aunt was also a nun but was forced to work as a doctor when the Communist Party closed the convents. "My family is very religious," Lu says.

Lu was 6 when his parents sent him from their village outside the city to live in Shanghai with his aunt, the doctor. "I was influenced by her very much," he says, adding that the religious atmosphere of his home life always made a deep impression on him. I knew it was part of my life. My parents and relatives really like me being a priest. The Chinese like roots, they keep their roots. So I continue my family's tradition."

Joseph Shen, 24, now at St. John's Seminary in Boston, was a student like Lu at the She Shan Seminary. He, too, comes from a family that has been Catholic for generations. He, too, remembers praying as a child in the privacy of his home. "My parents remembered all the prayers," he says, adding that it was his grandfather who baptized him in the period when churches were closed.

"Even when I was a child, I liked prayer," Shen says. "I was a little different from other teenagers. . . .[The adults] saw I was gentle and liked prayer, so they began to teach me the catechism." His decision to become a priest was greeted with respect by his family, who consider it an honor. "My parents and my relatives really support me to be a priest," he says.

When the seminarians go home, they hope to help infuse Chinese Catholicism with the energy of a new generation. Closed to the outside world for so long, the Chinese church missed out on many of the changes of recent decades. Only recently has it begun to initiate some of the changes that followed Vatican II, such as celebrating Mass in Chinese rather than Latin.

"I think the church is beginning to change, to follow the Chinese culture," says Lu, who emphasizes that the Chinese church needs more priests, since many of the clergy are getting on in years. "One priest is sometimes in charge of three or four parishes," he says. Shanghai alone has about 54 churches.

The seminarians see their youth as a crucial element in attracting a new generation to the church, a generation brought up with far more freedom and material benefits than its predecessors. "The young people are the future of the church in China," says Lu, who believes that his age and enthusiasm for sports and music will make it easier for him to influence today's Chinese youth.

In recent years, interest in Christianity has been growing in China, in part because of the country's opening up to the outside world and also because of people's curiosity about the West and its culture. Some of the curiosity surrounding Christianity has been influenced by an merging popular culture. As in the West, young people in China can watch videos, perhaps from Hong Kong, in which "they see that people are married in church," Lu says. Many Chinese young people also celebrate Christmas with an exchange of greeting cards, despite having little if any knowledge of the holiday's religious significance.

While many Chinese are curious about Christianity because of its association with other things Western, such as science, technology and a modern lifestyle, Shen believes much of this youthful interest goes deeper than mere curiosity. He recalls being struck by the enthusiasm of the young people he encountered at a Christmas Mass in Shanghai several years ago. While "some of them just want to know new things," he says, others "really want to know the meaning of life....They're just trying to find another way."

For many contemporary Chinese, "to be a Catholic means to be a good person," Lu says, though he admits that the growing materialism of today's developing China could put a damper on interest in religion. If China develops too much, he says, perhaps "young people [won't] want to go to church." They may "just want to play, go riding in a car," which is what it appears to him many young Americans want.

"The material life is not too bad," Shen says. "It makes life comfortable," but it has to be balanced, he says, by a respect for the "spiritual life."

Although adapting to American life and a new language hasn't always been easy, the seminarians believe they have grown from the experience. One of the biggest challenges has been adapting to the solitary living arrangements of an American seminary, where each seminarian is assigned his own room. In China, they shared a room with four other students and had "no privacy." "The emphasis there was on the "communal life, communal prayer," Lu says.

"In China we emphasize the strength of the group, not the individual," says Shen, who now believes that a balance between communal and individualistic living is probably the best approach for a society.

Americans, the seminarians say, tend to be much more individualistic and they have more freedom. They express themselves directly and are willing to offer their opinions more openly than Chinese. Also, US seminaries tend to have fewer rules, and students are allowed to make more decisions for themselves. "Americans are very open, very honest," Lu says. "If I am open to others, they really accept me. They help me."

Although the seminarians feel their government has generally not interfered with their religious practice, which is protected under the Chinese constitution, they seem nonetheless eager to have more religious freedom. "I hope China is more open to religion," say Shen, who believes that even some Communist Party members now practice religion. While party members are prohibited from being affiliated with a religious organization, Shen says he knows party members who practice privately.

"If a lot of people are interested in Christianity, I don't think it will be that easy for the government to restrict it," he says.

- Text and Photo by Robert O'Malley

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