China’s Communist government has been on an anti-Christian rampage of late, tearing down churches in the coastal city of Wenzhou and elsewhere, arresting underground bishops and home church leaders, and illicitly ordaining pliant priests as Catholic “bishops.“ But underneath this escalating campaign of repression – in fact, the reason for it – is a rapidly growing population of Christians.
There are now an estimated 100 million plus Christians in the world’s most populous country, with Catholics alone accounting for about 12 million of this number. Many of these are new converts who, eager to fulfill the Great Commission, are busy evangelizing their fellow Chinese citizens. The Chinese Communist Party has been doing some recruiting of its own in recent years, opening its ranks to intellectuals, business owners, and other previously suspect classes – even capitalists! Still, the 86.7 million formal members of this decaying "faith" – most of whom are Communists in name only – are now outnumbered by a growing and vibrant Chinese Christianity.
For China’s leaders, who vastly prefer that the Chinese people believe there is no god but the Party (and remember: they are the Party), this is an intolerable situation. This latest wave of persecution is their answer. The good news is that Catholicism in China is on the rise nonetheless.
Let me share with you the many hopeful faces of the Catholic faith that I saw on a recent trip to China.
One is the face of a Catholic priest, serving as the pastor of a large parish near a major Chinese city, who is determined to save souls. As we sat in his office, he unrolled a drawing of a huge statue of Jesus. He intends to have it built in secret and then erected overnight on a pedestal overlooking the freeway that runs near his church. “How are you going to get permission from the authorities?” I said. “It’s Church land,” he said firmly, “I don’t need permission.”
There were no churches being torn down in the North China provinces I visited, but there were certainly churches being built. The thousands of churches that were torn down or confiscated on Party orders during the fifties and sixties have nearly all been rebuilt or refurbished, often with foreign donations. This includes the parish church at Dongergou in Shanxi province that I visited, where Masses have been held continuously for more than 220 years.
I remember the faces of those who attended daily Mass there. They arrived a half an hour early and spent the time chanting prayers in classical Chinese composed hundreds of years ago. By the time the Mass began, the church was full.
Many new churches have been built as well, sometimes with official permission, sometimes without. This is an area where the laity often takes the initiative. In one village, the parishioners – many of them new converts – were holding prayer meetings and occasional Masses, when a priest was able to be present, in an abandoned stable. I left them a check to help with the construction of a new church.
I remember the faces of 50 pairs of lay evangelists from one parish who, filled with zeal, traveled by motorbike every Sunday morning to evangelize neighboring communities. They had attended Mass in their parish church the night before, and then on Sunday morning, after a blessing by the local priest, were on their way to villages ten, twenty, and even thirty miles away to preach the Gospel. They gathered with those curious about the Catholic faith in people’s homes to read the bible and pray. Some of these groups of new believers were already too large to meet in someone’s home. When the local government denied them permission to build a church, they build a “social hall” instead. A church by any other name is still a church, after all, as long as it is properly consecrated.