The churches of China come full circle: from church, to factory, to church.
The Catholic faithful of China have begun something of a healing process after the March 3 Mass of Reconciliation between the “underground” and the “official” Catholic communities. Following the guidance of Pope Francis, they are attempting to walk the path of unity and mutual forgiveness in order to join in communion.
In Shizhuang, these two communities have found that sharing their faith through labor can yield the most nourishing fruits: the conversion of an abandoned factory into a “temporary” church.
It is estimated that 80% of Shizhuang’s 2,000 residents are Catholic. Until recently, many of these people were a part of the “underground” community, worshiping in secret lest their “sins” against the government draw the wrath of the authorities.
The social climate has changed in positive ways since the early March reconciliation. Still, joining the “underground” with the “official” church has led to immediate logistical concerns. The churches used by the official church were far too small to accommodate the entire Catholic community in their union.
In the first liturgical celebrations of the newly-joined communities, gatherings were so packed that worship spaces could not accommodate the crowds; many were left outside in the chill spring air. The Catholics of the village immediately began a fundraising campaign in order to build an adequate facility, but in the meantime they set their eyes on an abandoned factory that has stood empty in their town for 30 years.
The town sought and received permission from the government to use the building, and the priests and laity were off to the races, quickly organizing themselves into teams and working to clean and renovate the building to make it a worthy space for prayer and worship.
Vatican Insider reports that the labor was joyful, but emotional. Men and women worked, sweated, and dirtied their hands together in solidarity, seeking no compensation beyond the growth of their communion in Christ. Some worked as builders, while others supplied the workers with meals and materials. The work continued even at night and the teams of builders often took breaks to pray together and adore the Blessed Sacrament:
“If you ask them where they find the strength and energy to work together,” the report reads, “they simply answer that they are happy, and for that reason sometimes they don’t even notice the effort. Everyone is tired, but on their faces you can feel gratitude and thanksgiving to God.”
It almost seems ironic, or perhaps divinely inspired, that these faithful are converting an old factory into a church, when the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) saw all the Chinese cathedrals and churches transformed into factories, warehouses, and stables. In a land that once heard Mao Zedong’s famous declaration that “religion no longer exists in China,” they have come full circle, and the persecuted church can see a light at the end of the tunnel, albeit a very long tunnel.
In the 1970s, under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, things got a little better for Catholic Communities, but the industrial fate of their places of worship, along with governmental scrutiny, led many to remain “underground,” worshiping in the peace and privacy of their homes and small communities.
There are still areas of China where it is safer to continue worshiping in the underground communities, rather than within the imposed “conformity” of the local politicians, but the faithful of Shizhuang are setting a hopeful example for the whole country. With similar abandoned factories littered throughout China, perhaps all of the old churches will someday be restored to their former glory.