My experiences of the Church in China

| Joseph Kuharski | April 2, 2012 | 0 Comments

Last summer I decided to teach English in China with the Maryknoll Missionaries and six other seminarians as my summer apostolic work for the Pontifical North American College, where I currently reside for major seminary studies. In this article, I would like to explain my experiences and understanding of the Church of China, although I cannot pretend to present a complete and comprehensive picture. However, I hope to explain some of what I learned through conferences by missionaries in Hong Kong as well as through some of our own experiences.


My eager naiveté for my first real missionary experience in this land of blatant religious persecution conjured up images of the struggles and subsequent successes of St. Francis Xavier, Matteo Ricci, and other great missionaries to the East. Like them, we would face opposition by both the culture and the government. Indeed, although the Chinese government permits the practice of religion in general, this practice must be independent from foreign influences in order to assure allegiance to the communist government.

Thus, my hopes of radically witnessing to the faith were crushed. We could not bring up matters of faith unless first being asked, the chances of which seemed to be hopeless in a culture with non-Christian roots.

Heroic yet simple faith

Lo and behold, no later than the second day in Jilin, China, I was asked about my vocation story by a former student of the program. In fact, throughout our three weeks there, each of us was asked at various times basic questions about the faith by individuals, and eventually students mustered up enough confidence to ask questions out loud in class as to who we were and what it really means to be studying to be a Catholic priest.

Outside of class, I had one experience that alone seemed to make the whole trip worthwhile. One Sunday I went into town for Mass, since Father Brian Barrons, our supervisor, was out of town that weekend. As Pope Benedict said in his letter to the Church in China, “Lay faithful . . . must not hesitate to participate in the Eucharist celebrated by Bishops and by priests who are in full communion with the Successor of Peter and are recognized by the civil authorities.” Thankfully, the bishop of Jilin met these conditions, which was a great relief. This local parish drew shockingly large crowds, and on this occasion, there was standing room only!

After Mass, the two young sisters that had been guests at Father Brian’s apartment introduced me to a young woman who expressed how much she had wanted to meet me when she saw me in Mass. She explained how she recently converted and had very few opportunities to talk to other young Catholics about the faith. Due to the meager catechesis offered to her, she had a seemingly insatiable hunger for a greater knowledge of faith and philosophy. Having basically never heard of the Second Vatican Council, we would have to start from ground zero.

While in my seminary studies, I often put great emphasis on what I know; the young woman’s heroic yet simple faith taught me that I must not lose sight of who I know and always come to him with the joyful humility of a child of God. She was ecstatic when I connected her with Father Brian and the small community of Christians and missionaries involved in his work and invited her to come to daily Mass.

Thus, this community, though less dramatic than the stereotypical images we often have, could very well be considered an “underground church.” Since this is often a confusing term, I would like to explain the differentiation of the underground and aboveground “churches.”

Two communities, one church

The communist government in the form of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) has a certain degree of control over the aboveground church, which varies greatly from diocese to diocese, though, as Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong has said, “at the national level there is no other authority than the Patriotic Association.”

Regardless of the area, the underground church always has more freedom to practice the faith and run its local church, while, as Cardinal Zen states, bishops in the aboveground church are “slaves.”

One example of this freedom is in the formation of priests and religious, a crisis in the Chinese Church and the main reason for the continued presence of the Maryknolls. Materials and proper educators are at times not only restricted for those recognized in the aboveground church, but the government has even designed a nationwide program that mixes a communist influence into religious education. Some of the priests and bishops that had to go through the program said it was so compelling that even with their background in faith matters, it was very difficult to decipher truth from communist propaganda. On the other hand, in the underground church, we heard of a house of formation for women hiding under the storefront of a massage establishment!

One thing that the missionaries made sure to stress was that the aboveground Church in China recognized by state authorities and the underground Church are not two separate churches, but two communities within one Church.

In fact, there is at times even overlap between clergy who serve in the underground church who also serve in the aboveground church. We heard of one story of a bishop ordained clandestinely and who served as such in the local diocese but who was also officially recognized as a priest by the CPCA. However, recently the government has orchestrated several illicit ordinations, meaning that the candidates were supposedly elected by the people (which is also orchestrated), and then chosen without Vatican approval.

Soon before we arrived in Hong Kong was the government-forced illicit ordination of Father Joseph Huang Bingzhang in nearby Shantou, which already had a Vatican-appointed bishop in place. We heard stories of how the ordaining bishops had tried to escape and were trailed by police officers (for one a shocking 500 police officers!), taken by force to the cathedral, and compelled to take part in the ordination, which at times even included brainwashing techniques.

Though his involvement was highly coveted by government officials due to the weight of his reputation, Bishop Paul Pei Junmin successfully escaped the ordination and remained in his cathedral because of the heroic protection of his priests, who physically surrounded the cathedral and remained as such so that the government could not take him away during the night. I began to realize just how courageous this was when I heard from a missionary that multiple bishops are still missing due to similar “offenses.”

Thanks be to God, the Vatican has been doing all it can to bring hope and help to the Church in China, especially through the appointment of Chinese-speaking Church officials in key Vatican departments.

In fact, when Father Bruno, a member of the Paris Foreign Missions Society who had been working with Chinese priests for nearly a decade before finally being expelled, was asked what advice he would give the Vatican, he said that he would probably give them a blank sheet of paper!

Nevertheless, the situation is quite dire and has gotten worse in the past few years, especially with the onslaught of illicit ordinations. Thus, as the Holy Father exhorts us, let us all pray and offer sacrifices for the Church in China through the intercession of the patroness of China, Our Lady of Sheshan.

Joseph Kuharski is a seminarian of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He is a member of St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony.


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