This Day

“Do you know what day this is?”, asked the frail, seamy-faced Trappist monk. “Don’t bother me old man’,” snapped fellow prisoner, Jean Pasqualini.  Both were trudging towards work fields, from their prison camp, south of Beijing, wimter of  1961.

It was Christmas, Pasqualini suddenly remembered. He then sensed the Trappist wanted to pray. “You’re mad,”  he erupted.  “But  I must,” was the reply.  “We’re the only two here to whom this day means something.”

“Fifteen minutes, old man. No more. Understand?”, Pasqualini hissed, as the monk limped down from the ridge. Any minute a  guard’s whistle could blow.  Pasqualini squirmed.  But only the winter wind ruffled poplars. He peered into the valley.

The monk used a rock for his altar. A mug served as chalice and a flattened tin can as paten. He fermented wine from  saved summer grapes. An unleavened loaf came from scrap grain.  Tattered prison garb were mass vestments.

“He knew he could be shot,’ Pasqualini recalled for Readers Digest years later. “Whenever it is Christmas, once again I see him, standing serenely in that freezing wind, holding wafer and wine, declaring his oneness with God.”

On Christmas 2011, more people in China will  “go to church than in the whole of Europe” where church attendance continues to dip, notes British Broadcasting Corporation.

How many Chinese Christians are there?, asked Tim Gardam in a BBC Radio 4 program Beijing claims 25 million. Roughly, 18 million are Protestants and six million Catholics.

“This is a vast underestimate,”  a conservative figure is 60 million, BBC adds. Converts range from peasants in remote  villages to sophisticated middle class youngsters in booming cities.

Mao Ze Dong described religion as “poison”.  The Cultural Revolution attempted to eradicate it — and failed. Driven underground, Christianity survived.  With its own  martyrs, it has spread. 

In the 1980s, religuous belief was again permitted, albeit with shackles.  A State Administration for Religious Affairs  oversees “official churches. They’re corralled into designated places of worship. “Love the country — love your religion” is the slogan.

The Party promotes atheism in schools. It undertakes “to protect and respect religion,  until such time as religion itself will disappear”.  This post-Mao rewrite renders unto Ceasar what belongs to God.

The official church has carved elbow room. But numbers attending official churches are dwarfed by “house churches”. These  sprouted like mustard seed. “They unnerve the ‘official’  Church which fears their ‘fervor may provoke a backlash.”

There is a large Catholic underground church.  The officially -sanctioned Chinese  Catholic Patriotic Association (CPAA)   appoints its own bishops with agreement by Vatican. Inch by inch, Rome and Beijing strove to come to an accommodation  where no one yielded what it deemed essential.

That effort collapsed  when priests, who belonged to the state-sanctioned CPAA were consecrated bishops without Holy See agreement. The Vatican excommunicated  Fr. Paul Lei Shiyin.

Weeks later, the Holy See welcomed Peter Luo Xuegang as new bishop of Yibin. But it flayed “participation of the illegitimate bishop (Paul Lei Shiyin ), who has the canonical status of an excommunicated person”. This  causes “disagreement and confusion among the faithful.””No illegitimate bishop”  may  articipate in the ordination liturgy, in accordance with Catholic norms, Holy See Press Office’s  Fr. Federico Lombardi stressed. Bishop Shiyin shrugged off the warning.

Pressures on Chinese priests vary with time and  region.  “In real life, the boundaries are permeable,”as state tries to hold shepherds hostage to scatter their flocks. writes “Rocky”, pen name of a Chinese seminarian. 

Sanctions smash those who opt for communion with the  Chair of Peter . ”They feel lonely and helpless”. Some are  frustrated by Vatican’s  policy of  groping for a modus viviendi with the CCPA.   At the other end are those “nutured  by government…to  control  the life of a diocese. They’re plied  with  privileges. Others are coerced and  some  blackmailed  for misconduct.  “Clandestine  party members were  infiltrated since seminary formation.”

In between, some buckle when persecuted. Perhaps, pressured bishops should ask dispensation from the Vatican rather than confuse their people. But fear of “losing face” – a typical Chinese personality trait – is a psychological hurdle.”

Ties with the Pope are fine but “not  essential to the core of faith”, others reason. The Second  Vatican Council’s  drive to reform   an overly-centralized papacy, becomes  within  a  socialist China,  carte blanche to disobey. They  point to 300-plus dissident Austrian priests,  who signed  a “Pledge of Disobedience’

Others split hairs. The Pope can be ignored, if one has “proportionate reasons”. Like  what? Like opening a new clinic, building a larger convent, even a chance to proclaim the gospel.

“Speak human words to humans and ‘ghostly’ words to ghosts.”is a Chinese proverb. It morphs into an excuse that  ends justify  means.

“I think it is very natural that many other people will not be satisfied,” Professor He Guanghu, at Renmin University in Beijing, told BBC…”( They ) will seek some meaning for their lives,”  notes this  most eminent of  religion scholars.  “When Christianity falls into their lives, they will seize it very tightly.”

Pasqualini summed up Professor He’s insight after the Trappist’s  underground mass: “Merry Christrmas, Father Hsia,” he said.  The monk smiled back: “Jean,  Merry Christmas.”

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