Are people allowed to go to Mass in China? Do people go to jail because they are Catholic in China? Are there Bibles in China? Many people are unfamiliar with and often misinformed about the life Catholics are permitted to live in the People’s Republic of China. Their ideas regarding the political situation of China match those of the past reality and not those of the present. It is important, therefore, to update people about the political scheme surrounding Catholicism in China.
I will speak in the first-person in this article and explain my experience, knowledge, and observations of what Catholics are and are not allowed to do in China as well as the relationship between the government and the Church in China. Before coming to China, I was unsure of what truly to expect, and I even feared what the government would do if they knew my beliefs as a Catholic. I did not know if I could even bring a Bible into the country.
However, after entering China three times on different occasions and passing through customs, I realized that not only did they not check my bags for religious items, they did not check my bags at all. I could have brought a hundred Bibles into the country. They simply do not care. Even if there are laws regarding what can be brought into the country, which I do not know about, they do not enforce them.
After spending a couple days in Shanghai, I began looking for churches in which to attend Mass. I found Saint Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai. Yes, there are many cathedrals in China, with bishops. From my experience, all the churches I have visited seem not to be part of the government-run fake catholic church. They all seem to have been genuinely Catholic. However, the relationship between individual priests and bishops with the government is uncertain. One local woman who was about in her sixties or so explained to me in English that some priests are loyal to the Chinese government and some are loyal to Rome. I think the average person, however, cannot tell who follows whom. The main content of the Mass appears to be exactly the same as it is everywhere else in the world, so one cannot tell by the Mass alone.
Many people believe that the Church is underground in China. Everything I have mentioned so far has been the aboveground Catholicism. The same Chinese woman did tell me that there is an underground Church with a bishop. They are Catholic and are loyal to the pope and do not follow any of the restrictions the government tries to place on them. They remain underground because if they were to do what they do aboveground, they would most likely be imprisoned. The government does, in fact, restrict the actions and movements of certain priests, bishops, and even seminarians, not allowing them to visit certain people and places at times. I have heard this from many different people. This can be frustrating, though we must remember how much China has improved in recent years and pray for a continued change toward religious freedom.
Although the government sometimes uses a strong arm against religious leaders, the average person is left untouched. I have seen many smalls groups of people walking in the streets wearing shirts with Christian messages on them. Perhaps, the acceptance by the government of Christianity at the local level is because of the increasing number of population and ideas coming from the West, but I cannot tell exactly why. It could be that the government sees some economic or political gain by allowing Christianity in a general sense in China. Either way, what the Chinese government seems not to want is large demonstrations that challenge or threaten their power.
Catholics are allowed to go to Mass in China. They do not go to jail because they are openly Catholic. Bibles are in many places and can be purchased at many churches. Most Catholics can live the same way in China as they would be able to live in many other countries of the world. Although the communist government sometimes will assert its power, Catholicism still lives and operates in China in a vibrant and pleasant way.
When Catholics attend Mass, they often believe that what they see is the way it is for the entire Catholic world. When they are at a parish where the pastor does not have much faith and the Mass is said very casually, they believe that this is how Catholicism is universally. People then often lose faith after seeing a rushed “performance” week after week that seemingly has no relevance. Yet, one ought not to let the poor Catholic life of some parishes spoil living, vibrant ones where the priests are faithful, the Mass is respected, and the people are devout. Such is the case with Mass in China.
Upon entering a church in China, one may frequently see a gift area that sells various Catholic items, such as books, rosaries, statues, and pictures. Many Catholics are happy to make use of these articles which aid in their spiritual growth. It is unfortunate that many Catholics do not have this opportunity in many churches around the world. Proceeding further into the church, one will notice many statues, holy water, pictures of the pope, a tabernacle, stained glass windows, religious paintings, and other markers that clearly indicate that it is a catholic church, perhaps more so than churches in other countries. Typically, there is a group of elderly Catholics faithfully chanting prayers, such as the rosary, in the local dialect of the city, not the standard Mandarin Chinese. Although the words are unrecognizable by any foreign visitor, the sound of peaceful prayer allows one’s soul to enter into the Spirit of God, which is especially helpful before the start of Mass.
Sunday Mass is something special to see in China (though daily Mass is also special). During the entrance hymn, the priest walks around, sprinkling the people with holy water. After this, the altar will be incensed by the priest as he circles it. Many altar servers will be seen assisting the priest. The Mass begins normally. The congregation, in general, responds willingly and enthusiastically. One can say, “And with your spirit” joyfully without getting an awkward feeling that less enthusiastic Catholics are looking, because most Catholics are praying with the same enthusiasm.
The priest also will be seen having a similar enthusiasm as he incenses the Bible, reads it with interest, incenses the gifts, and sings many parts of the Mass. There is no doubt that this enthusiasm of the priest and the respect for God he has assist in the faithful participation of the congregation during the Mass. In many parishes in China, this can be felt.
During the distribution and reception of Holy Communion, the respect for Jesus in the Eucharist is recognizable. Communion-plates are generally used to protect the Eucharist from falling to the ground. Priests, deacons, and nuns are the ones who most often distribute the Sacrament. The people line up to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament. Catholics in a state of grace receive the Sacrament while Catholics who are not in a state of grace receive a blessing from the priest instead. Even non-Catholics approach the altar with their arms crossed to receive a blessing. These moments are very happy.
After the Mass has ended and the recessional hymn has finished, the congregation often recites the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. One senses that one is in a true Catholic environment. Considering all that has been mentioned so far, how could one not sense the Catholicity in the air?
Being a Catholic in China, one is not alone but part of a family. The priests, the people, and the Mass all are part of this. Perhaps one may ask the question, “What is the Mass like in China?” The answer is simple: it is Catholic.
Catholicism in China – it is one of the most interesting news topics that ought to be considered for Catholics in today’s world. With its current booming number of baptized Catholics and history of persecution, China and its Catholicism remain a matter filled with intrigue, misconception, and hopeful discovery: intrigue because of the vast interest and curiosity revolving around the subject, misconception because of the false impressions coming from the world about the lives of Catholics in China (especially regarding the political scheme), and hopeful discovery because of the blessings from God that exist in this country that have yet to be viewed by the world.
For thousands of years, China has been a country that has fascinated the minds of everyone who has come across an image, reading, or film of it. The stark difference of it from the Western world leaves the West with a mixed sense of fear and wonder. Christianity as a whole has largely been associated with the West. To conceive of such a religion in a place far different from the West is a hard concept to grasp by Westerners. Yet, one should keep in mind the origins of Christianity. It has not always existed in such familiar places. It was in Israel that Jesus Christ was born. There it was that Christianity first was born. Egypt for more than 1,500 years has harbored Christians throughout the ever-changing world. If places such as these have been bases for Christianity, is it so farfetched to believe that the same could happen in modern China?
The truth is that Catholicism in China has been on a rapid rise. Large numbers of Chinese agnostics and non-Catholic Christians are becoming baptized Catholics. In China, it is not surprising to find a Mass where fifteen or so adults are being baptized. Yes, adults. Though babies are also baptized, the large number of adults being baptized is a spectacle not often seen in the West. This sweeping wind of adult believers testifies to the honest faith and search for Truth of the Chinese people. Many are seeking what has been missing in their lives and finding it in the Catholic Church. This certainly is a matter of intrigue; a land previously focused on Buddhism, Confucianism, and Communism is now making a move towards Christ. Granted, Catholicism is a minority in this largely secular place, but that is not stopping honest truth-seekers from coming to the Church in the hope of living a better life with God.
Nonetheless, the misconceptions about Catholicism in China tend to prevail. Some may ask if one is allowed to go to Mass in China. The answer is, absolutely. There are numerous Catholic churches spread throughout the country, and each big city will have several of them. They offer Sunday Mass in Chinese regularly and often times in other languages as well. Daily Masses are also celebrated in many parishes. For example, Saint Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai offers two daily Masses per day along with several Sunday Masses, one being in English. Both Chinese natives and foreign visitors come together in church and celebrate the beauty that exists in God. It is a sight to see.
There is great hope for Catholicism in China. Chinese priests in general are quite friendly, down to Earth, and enjoy serving the people in many ways. Most priests sing during different parts of the Mass every Sunday. They sprinkle the people with holy water, use incense, and give thought-out homilies. As far as Mass in China goes, the minimum effort is not the case. The congregation is packed with devout believers who pray and sing. Many, especially elderly people, receive Communion in a very respectful manner. Some of these Chinese Catholics have been Catholic their whole lives, perhaps over eighty years, and are still willing to kneel during the consecration of the Mass. They are quite familiar with Catholic doctrine, the saints, and the pope. The rosary is a daily part of their lives. When one begins to discover the Catholicism that exists in China, there is no doubt that the inspiration to change will be knocking at the door of one’s heart.
Do not be surprised that there are places in our modern world where Catholicism is growing. Although the decline of the Church in the West has led many to forget about Christ, China is giving Christ a home more and more as His name begins to be known by people who want to know Him.