“Faith is much more precious than life”: the Underground Catholic Church in China

This week, word came from various sources that the Vatican has asked several validly ordained Chinese bishops to step down so that bishops selected and approved by the Chinese government (but not validly ordained and recognized by Rome) may take their places.

It’s a move that has been seen by many as a slap in the face to the underground Church in China–the Church that, despite intimidation and intense persecution–continues to remain faithful to the Roman Catholic Church without polluting its unity with Rome with Chinese-government backed clergy and bishops.

At first glance it seems like a big mistake for Rome to be making friends with Communists (see: history). But what really caught my attention when I heard this story was the plight of underground Catholics in China–and it made me appreciate the comfort in which we in the U.S. can live and practice our faith.

I think it’s important that Catholics understand what our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ and His Church around the world, so this is the first in a series of posts about persecuted Catholics in various regions of the world and what their perseverance and courage can teach us.

Steadfast Faith is an Understatement

Those saints and holy men and women of God that refused to betray the Lord under intense persecution–even though it cost them their earthly lives–have always been some of the most inspiring to me.

The earliest Christians are great examples of faith in the face of persecution, and arguably they’re the reason the Church grew so quickly in the first few centuries after Christ’s death. (As they say, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”) Such was the case with my confirmation saint, St. Philomena, a thirteen-year-old virgin martyr of the early Church, who endured pressure from her family as well as three days of torture by Roman soldiers under Diocletian and ultimately death because she refused to break a vow of chastity she’d made to the Lord.

Other examples that come to mind are Catholics that lived under Nazi persecution, like Fr. Rupert Mayer, a Jesuit priest who boldly spoke out against Hitler’s regime in Germany, so much so that he spent almost eight years in various concentration camps. Or Mexican priests like Blessed Miguel Pro who risked everything to bring the sacraments to Catholics during the early 20th century persecutions in Mexico.

These people and countless others had faith when it was difficult, when it cost them the most. It’s easy to have faith when doing so is comfortable; but as steel is made stronger in fire, so is faith made stronger in trials and suffering.

Martyrs and courageous Catholic Christians are not a mere historic occurrence; they can be found right now, in 2018, around the world. From troubled areas in Latin America, to the Middle East, and China, people are being persecuted for being Catholic–and those same Catholics are choosing to practice their faith regardless of the consequences. To say that their faith is steadfast, considering some of the obstacles they face, is a gross understatement.

Catholics in China, among other places, take some pretty big and frightening risks simply in order to be Catholic. And in doing so they teach us, we who are so blessed to live in countries with religious liberty, how to be better Catholics.

Persecution by Government

Though we might wish it wasn’t true or possible at this point in history, Christians around the world are still being actively persecuted by their own governments. We hold religious liberty in such high regard in the U.S. and we’re very sensitive to any threats it faces–but some people have none whatsoever.

China is a prime example. Catholicism has a long and complicated history in China, and one marked by almost constant persecution. The existence of Christianity was first recorded in China in the 600s but was banned within two centuries. Historically, China preferred to keep foreigners out, which included foreign religions.

The Jesuits, like Fr. Matteo Ricci, and other religious orders returned in the 13th century as trade softened China’s resolve to keep out foreigners.The Church began to take shape in the 20th century, when Catholics numbered over 1 million, and in 1922 the first apostolic delegate from Rome was appointed.

Dioceses and provinces were established in the 1940s, but when the communist party took over and established the People’s Republic of China under the brutal Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution that ensued effectively tried to wipe out all traces of religion, along with anyone who refused to part with it. Communism by its very nature hates religion and is atheistic; so religion cannot exist, or if it does exist, it must submit to the state first, which is the current issue facing the Chinese bishops.

Currently, there are two Catholic Churches in China: the underground Church, which has bishops ordained and approved by Rome and is in communion with Rome, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which is the government-backed “Catholic” Church, to which all clergy and practicing Catholics are expected to belong if they are going to be Chinese Catholics. This organization is in place to ensure state-control of what should be a separate religious body.

Harassment both physical and bureaucratic are the result of non-compliance in China. Clergy have been put on house arrest if they do not remain loyal members of the CPCA. In the past few months, several Protestant and Catholic churches have been destroyed and religious items like vestments and bibles confiscated by the government. Violence and prison terms are also a risk for underground Catholics who cross the state.

In other words, Chinese Catholics can have the freedom to worship–as long as it’s approved by the state. Which isn’t really any sort of freedom at all.

The most bothersome example I’ve read about is when Chinese police raided an underground Catholic Mass on April 20, 2017 in the Heilongjiang province. The police described their actions as having “successfully stopped an underground Catholic priest from holding an illegal religious activity.” Around the same time, several underground clergy were arrested so they wouldn’t be able to celebrate Easter Mass.

“Faith is much more precious than life”

I recently read an article in which Catholic News Agency interviewed a priest of the underground in China and his story is fascinating. Father Joseph of Jesus, the third of five children, was born and raised Catholic in China. In the interview he recounts what a struggle it was to grow up under China’s one-child-policy as the third of five, because “From time to time when the police would come into town, my parents had to go into hiding, away from us,” he said: “My older brother took care of us, we also had to hide everything we had in the house, because if the government discovered there was more than one child, they could take everything away from us.”

Both he and his brother became priests; he credits their strong faith to the “domestic church” their parents fostered within the family. Even though they didn’t have regular access to the sacraments, they depended on the Rosary, praying it together multiple times a day.

During his interview with CNA, he insisted that life would certainly be easier if he and others joined the CPCA, but because the CPCA is not fundamentally Catholic (part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with Rome) despite its name, he could not and would not.

His request for prayers for the faithful of China sums up the great faith of the persecuted Church:

“They [Chinese Christians] teach us that the faith is much more precious than life, and that in living the faith we encounter Christ. We have to bear witness to those around us so those who don’t know the faith can find it.”

Faith is much more precious than life.

Do we live in such a way that reflects this sentiment? Do we live our Catholic faith as though it is more important to us than life itself? Or is it sometimes a chore? An item on our to-do list?

I sometimes put myself in the shoes of a Catholic living under persecution and wonder if I would have the same courage to continue enduring this kind of intimidation, risk of arrest, and constant harassment from the state for the sake of my faith. I hope and pray that I would.

How often do we take for granted being able to hang rosaries from our car mirrors, being able to wear a crucifix, or being able to go to Mass every single Sunday without fear of a police raid or imprisonment? How often do we push Mass and Confession down on our list of “things to do” when Christians in places like China have to attend in secret, and often have to go months without these sacraments because it’s not safe for priests to offer them regularly?

Chinese Catholics of the underground Church remind us that faith is the most important thing in our lives. More important than life itself.

They remind us that we are so blessed. We can gather for adoration, for the rosary, for parish events without fear of reprisal.

They remind us that we should cherish being able to display even the smallest, simplest expressions of faith.

Pray for the underground Church, for people who must practice their faith in secret–and for an amendable situation to the bishop problem that won’t betray the Catholics who have remained faithful to the Church for so long.

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