Walking the streets of China, one sees a lot of people wearing crosses these days. If you ask them, they will say that they are Christians, even though they turn out to actually know almost nothing about the faith. You become a member of a house church by going once. You become a Christian by reading of the Gospel of Mark and saying a prayer to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. These are important steps, to be sure. But the reason why the number of Protestants in China is growing far faster than the number of Catholics is that the Church demands so much more of its members.
I remember the radiant faces of the 26 children who received their First Holy Communion in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Taiyuan. They had all received several months of instruction, had memorized their prayers, and understood the significance of the Eucharist. I was happy to see that the numbers of boys and girls were roughly equal, unusual in China where so many unborn baby girls are victims of the one-child policy leaving boys in the majority.
Several Catholic bishops are under house arrest for rejecting the authority of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (PCA), a front organization set up by the Chinese Communist Party to monitor and control Catholics. These include the Bishop of Shanghai, the Right Reverend Thaddeus Ma, who has been under house arrest at the Sheshan seminary for over two years. Bishop Ma used his ordination mass to announce that he was resigning from the PCA. His announcement was greeted by the 1,000 member congregation with thunderous applause, which is not surprising given how much the Catholic faithful despise that organization.
I remember the face of a young priest, whom we will call Joseph, who was planning on going to Rome to study bioethics. The government still believes that he is a seminarian, he told me. In fact he has already been ordained by an underground bishop, but he is keeping it secret. “As soon as a good Patriotic bishop comes to my city, I will be ordained by him,” he told me. “So that the Party will recognize me as a priest, not just a seminarian. It has its advantages.” What Joseph means by a “good Patriotic bishop” is a bishop who is recognized by both Rome and Beijing. There are some, such as the current Archbishop of Beijing Joseph Li Shan.
China’s conversion to Christianity has been a long time in coming. The Nestorian Christians reached China in the seventh century, but made few converts. The Jesuits arrived in the sixteenth century, nourishing the hope that, if they could convert the emperor, China’s millions would follow. The great Jesuit Matteo Ricci impressed the Ming emperor Wanli, who gifted the Church the land on which the North Cathedral in Beijing now stands. And one of Father Ricci’s successors came very close to converting the Qing Emperor Shunzhi, who attended some 24 masses in that same church. The history of the world would be very different is they had succeeded.
Today, four centuries later, the Holy Spirit is once again moving in a very powerful way in this ancient land, awakening the hearts and minds of the Chinese people to God’s love and forgiveness.
The human face of that love and forgiveness can be seen in the east nave of the South Cathedral, where hangs a beautiful portrait of the Madonna and child. She wears the garb of a Manchu empress, while the Infant Jesus is dressed as the Manchu crown prince, the prince who will one day reign over all of China. Oremus.
Steven W. Mosheris the President of the Population Research Institute and the author of Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits.