BEIJING — The Rev. Peter Liu Yongbin, a wireless microphone tethered to
his head, gazed out over his prospective converts and plowed into the
ABCs of Roman Catholic faith. He offered a roughly abridged version of
Abraham’s family tree, the benefits of frequent confession and a quick
guide to church hierarchy. “Think of the pope as equivalent to the
minister of a government bureaucracy,” he explained.
Then came the pop quiz. What if China
were to experience another Cultural Revolution, the traumatic decade of
Maoist zealotry during which religious adherents were persecuted?
“If a Red Guard puts a knife to your throat and tells you to renounce
your faith, what should you do?” he asked the five dozen initiates, all
of them weeks away from baptism. After an awkward silence, Father Liu
blurted out the answer: “Never give it up,” he said, his eyes widening
for effect. “Your devotion should be to God above all else.”
Such sentiments might be a mainstay of Christian belief but they border on treasonous in China, an officially atheist
state that demands fealty to the Communist Party. The pope might be a
ranking minister, but according to the party’s thinking, President Hu
Jintao is Catholicism’s supreme leader, at least here in China.
As a priest at an officially sanctioned government church — as opposed
to the legion of illicit unofficial congregations — Father Liu struggles
to balance his faith with the often-intrusive dictates of the Chinese
Catholic Patriotic Association, the omnipotent government body that
oversees religious life for China’s 12 million Roman Catholics. (Nearly
half of China’s Catholics are thought to attend underground churches.)
It is a balancing act shared by the leadership of China’s four other
official religions — Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism — who
must answer both to state authority and the exigencies of their faith.
An irascible but deeply contemplative man whose knowledge of Marxist
dogma rivals his command of biblical verse, Father Liu, 46, is quick to
praise the past three decades of increasing openness that has paved the
way for religious revival across the land. But even as he declares
himself steadfastly apolitical, he acknowledges that these are trying
times for state-supervised clergy members.
“Sometimes the political pressures are exhausting,” he said as he sat in
his church office only a few blocks from the closed compound housing
China’s leadership. The walls of his office are dominated by a Chinese
flag and a crucifix.
Such pressures have been rising as Beijing and the Vatican
engage in an increasingly combative struggle over the appointment of
bishops. After several years of quiet negotiation and a tacit agreement
to jointly name Chinese bishops, the Patriotic Association has since
2010 consecrated four bishops over the Vatican’s objections, including
Joseph Yue Fusheng, who was ordained Friday in the northern city of
Rome responded with an automatic excommunication.
The drama intensified on Saturday, when the Rev. Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the
newly installed auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, stunned his congregation
by announcing his resignation from the Chinese Patriotic Catholic
Association. “In the light of the teaching of our mother church, as I
now serve as a bishop, I should focus on pastoral work and
evangelization,” Bishop Ma told the crowded church. “Therefore, from
this day of consecration, it will no longer be convenient for me to be a
member of the patriotic association.”
The announcement, captured on video
and posted on foreign and Chinese Web sites, was met with sustained
applause from the congregation. Father Ma, who did not lead Mass on
Sunday as scheduled, has not been heard from since. China has responded
to the impasse with bravado, calling the recent excommunications
“unreasonable and rude” and suggesting that it will continue to
unilaterally fill as many as 40 vacant bishop seats. The Patriotic
Association declined to comment for this article, as did the Vatican.
Catholic leaders who have spent years fostering détente between Rome and
Beijing worry about the possibility of a catastrophic schism, something
avoided during the darkest days of the Communist Party’s war on
“It’s a very critical situation; I haven’t seen things so bad in 50
years,” said the Rev. Jeroom Heyndrickx, founder of an institute at the
Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium that promotes dialogue between
China and the church. “All the years of cooperation and progress have
been torn to pieces.”
It is not entirely clear what went wrong. The animus, fed by an age-old
narrative that paints the Vatican as a foreign interloper, is never far
beneath the surface. But analysts suggest party hard-liners may be
taking advantage of the political stasis that has preceded the
once-a-decade leadership change scheduled for later this year.
Many religious leaders both in China and abroad say the effort to turn
Catholics away from the pope have largely failed. The Rev. Bernardo
Cervellera, editor in chief of AsiaNews, an official Vatican news
service, said the government’s recent ordinations had angered many
ordinary Catholics. “I would say there’s a kind of resistance against
these bishops, with the faithful refusing to attend religious ceremonies
when they are present,” he said.
The conflict is reflected in Father Liu’s church, the Cathedral of the
Immaculate Conception, which dates back to 1605, when Wanli, the Ming
dynasty Emperor, permitted the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci to build a
residence and small chapel near the site of the current church. More
commonly known by its Chinese name, Nantang, or South Cathedral, it has a
storied but turbulent past. Repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes and
fires, it was burned down during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and closed
for much of the Cultural Revolution. In 1971, the soaring, gray-brick
Baroque cathedral was quietly reopened for foreign diplomats, and less
than a decade later, to Chinese.
Home to Beijing’s bishop, the church ministers to a fast-growing
congregation, much of it increasingly young, college-educated and hungry
for a moral antidote to China’s rampant materialism and corruption.
Like many members, Liu Bin, 25, said he felt wounded by the government’s
increasing antagonism toward Rome. “The Vatican to me is like Mecca is
to the Muslims,” said Mr. Liu, a software designer. “The pope is
essential to our faith.”
Father Liu’s days are long, with the first Mass starting at 6 a.m. and
the last one, a lively musical youth service on weekends, ending at 8:30
p.m. Some days he officiates at eight weddings, most of them for
agnostic couples entranced by the pomp and the European-style
architecture. During Christmas, traffic in front of the church snarls as
20,000 people pour through the nave. Father Liu estimates that
three-fourths of those who come are drawn by the music and the costumed
“Most Chinese people have no idea what Christianity is,” Father Liu
said, looking rumpled after a particularly hectic weekend. “They’ll come
here to get married, and then go off to a Buddhist temple.”
Not that he minds. In fact, the $450 he receives for each wedding helped
pay for radiators last year, alleviating bitterly cold services where
supplicants’ fingers would sometimes stick to frozen chalices.
Drawing the curious is good for other reasons: it is one of the few ways
the church can legally proselytize. Rigorous state control means that
China has no Christian radio shows; Bibles cannot be sold at bookstores
or passed out on the street. Religious organizations are barred from
accepting foreign donations for charitable work.
“We have to beg the government to do anything,” he said, yanking at his
collar for effect. “Their attitude is, ‘You should be happy we allow you
to exist.’ It’s not like in the West where all your political leaders
are already Christian.”
Like many Catholic clerics, Father Liu comes from a family of the
faithful. Before the Cultural Revolution forced a name change, his
hometown in Shanxi Province was called New Catholic Village. Since 1949,
it has produced 25 priests, 30 nuns and a bishop. “I learned to say the
word ‘Lord’ before I could say ‘Mama,’ ” he said.
A cocky, longhaired troublemaker in his youth, he says he was largely
oblivious to religion until, one day after graduating from high school,
he suddenly felt the calling. He shaved his head, started wearing suits
and immersed himself in the Bible. After four years studying philosophy
in Beijing, he entered the seminary with the help of a bishop impressed
by his charisma and intellect. “The church prefers extroverts like me
because others tend to follow us,” he said.
But government strictures on religion and the continuing battle between
Rome and the Communist Party have tested his faith. Sometimes, he said,
he dreams of living abroad.
Then there are other challenges, including a growing shortage of priests
and nuns. In the past, he said, religious families like his would be
happy for a son to enter the priesthood. There was the prestige, but
also the benefits of a steady meal. These days, the country’s strict
family planning laws dissuade most families from giving up their only
child to the church.
Experts say that clerical celibacy and the strife between the Vatican
and Beijing have made it harder for Catholicism to compete with the
rapidly growing Protestant faith, which has five times as many
adherents. “In the Protestant Church, anyone can be a pastor and you
don’t have a problem with the pope, who is considered a so-called
foreign power,” said Father Cervellera of AsiaNews.
Still, about 500 people last year were baptized at Nantang, up from 200
in 2006. The conversion classes can be exhausting because most newcomers
know little about Christianity. At a recent session, those gathered
asked whether Catholicism would prolong their lives or make them rich.
“Will Catholicism make me get along better with other people?” asked an
elderly man who described himself as a misanthrope. (“The church will
give you dignity,” Father Liu responded. “Religion will make you
Despite the challenges, Father Liu is optimistic about Catholicism’s
future in China. Religion will outlast any political party, he says, and
then there is the sheer number of the unaffiliated. “As far as I’m
concerned,” he said, “there are at least 1.2 billion people here waiting
to be converted.”