A year ago today, when I met with some of the 80,000 underground Catholics of Wenzhou, China, they were rebounding from serious hardship. Just months before, authorities had detained their bishop, Peter Shao Zhumin, and chancellor, Paul Jiang Sunian. The authorities pressured the two men to register with the Catholic Patriotic Association, submitting to state control. They even took Shao on a mandatory fieldtrip to Sichuan Province, sitting him down with government-appointed bishop of Leshan, whom the Vatican considers illegitimate. But despite government pressure, both the bishop and the chancellor of Wenzhou refused to yield, and they were both eventually released.
As we gathered at the “underground” Qiao Tau Mang Catholic church — a conspicuous five-story structure built beside a government building — the Catholics were celebrating their leaders’ return. But more than that, they were happy because it was the World Day of Prayer for the Church in China, held each May 24.
If the Communist government had its druthers, there would be no religion practiced in Chinese borders. But Maoist efforts to eradicate faith failed, so Beijing instead tightly controls it through a religious bureaucracy. Even so, many Christians choose to worship outside the official system. These underground Christians are subjected to periodic crackdowns and religious persecution.
Because Protestants don’t adhere to rigid hierarchy, they’re more flexible in their response to government control. House churches sprout up, and it’s tough for the government to even keep track of the new pastors.
But the Catholic Church’s top-down, orderly structure often makes it an easy target.
Government control of Catholics continued this year, most notably in Shanghai. Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin announced in December that he was leaving the Catholic Patriotic Association, which governs state-sanctioned Church activity. Since then, he’s been placed under house arrest.
As Chinese Catholics gathered today, Ma’s plight reflected their own. The Church in China is divided, as worshippers in the underground and official churches try to cope with government intervention in their worship. The one-child policy, as well as government closure of seminaries, has resulted in a priest shortage. And persecution continues.
The World Day of Prayer for the Church in China is a high point of Catholics’ year because, many told me, it’s the only day they feel connected to the global church.