A Personal Reflection: Study tour of China finds Catholicism is alive, growing

By Marian J. Barber
Guest Columnist

As director of the Catholic Archives of Texas, part of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, I am active in the American Catholic Historical Association. At a meeting last January, Passionist Father Rob Carbonneau, the executive director of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau, was discussing a study tour of China and invited me to join. What a gift that turned out to be!
Like many Americans, I had imagined that Catholicism in China was mainly an underground religion. This trip opened my eyes to the beauty of this fascinating country and the vitality of Catholicism there.
One morning near the midpoint of our journey as the sun rose into a hazy sky and the broad streets of Tianjin, China, filled with cars, trucks, bicycles and motorbikes, my companions and I walked gingerly across a bridge made of thick glass panels and crossed a park adorned with life-size bronze statues of soldiers and a tank. We soon found ourselves at the tall iron gate guarding the entrance to a modest Gothic revival church. It was 6:15 a.m. Led by an Irish Vincentian priest, we were four American Catholics about to join the Daughters of Charity and the people they serve for daily Mass.
The serene space was soon packed with congregants. An organ provided accompaniment for spirited Mandarin hymns as 20 Daughters of Charity filled the front pews, many having traveled from the countryside where they serve remote communities in pairs. The date was June 21, the 147th anniversary of the Tianjin Massacre. The Daughters had come from Europe to Tianjin in 1862, not long before they arrived in Texas, and opened an orphanage for children left parentless by cholera. In 1870, rumors swept the city that the sisters were killing the children and extracting their eyes to use in concocting Western medicines. Enraged, an anti-foreign mob attacked the convent and murdered all 10 sisters residing there. Each year the Daughters gather to commemorate the tragedy and celebrate their community’s resilience.
The study tour was organized by the U.S. Catholic China Bureau and consisted of 20 Americans travelling to Hong Kong and Mainland China. The Bureau is a California-based nonprofit founded in 1989 that works to foster American understanding of the complicated situation of Catholicism in Hong Kong and the Mainland. Our group included six priests, one seminarian, and the rest of us were laypeople. We were led by Father Carbonneau; Mary Sluka of the board of directors; and a Chinese religious, the amazing Sister Gaby Yang, a former eye surgeon turned Catholic educator and professional tour guide. 
Our two-week trip also took us to the cities of Xi’an, Shijiazhuang and Beijing. We saw cathedrals and churches, one only now being restored after serving as a factory during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. In Hong Kong, we met with Cardinal John Tong and Maryknoll Father Peter Barry, who work toward full communion between the “registered” and “unregistered” churches that remain as reminders of the long period when Chinese Catholicism was primarily underground.
The most heartening experiences for us were the two liturgies we attended and our visits to country parishes, seminaries, social service agencies, and a city hospital run by the Daughters of Charity that reminded me of a much smaller version of Austin’s Seton Medical Center. 
China’s Catholic population is estimated at between 9.5 million and 12 million among a total population of 1.4 billion. The estimates range so widely because many of the faithful are still underground or unregistered. Catholicism is one of five religions “approved” by the Communist Party-dominated government as part of a commitment to “freedom of religious belief,” but it still faces restrictions on establishing schools, proselytizing and owning property. What is allowed and even encouraged is providing social services –– especially to small children, elders, people with disabilities and persons affected by HIV and AIDS. 
In Shijiazhuang, we visited the headquarters of Jinde Charities, a Catholic communications and social service agency that links Catholic communities across the vast country. At a nearby residence they provide for elders, the priests who lead Jinde told us one of the paradoxes of modern China: the recently relaxed one-child policy has left many elders without family members to care for them, at the same time that it has reduced vocations to the priesthood and religious life to a trickle as only-children observe their obligation to care for elderly parents. 
Throughout our journey, we witnessed instance after instance of quiet evangelization, carried out by clergy, religious and laypeople who demonstrate the power of Catholic Christianity through dedicated service to the most marginalized of God’s people, especially those living in rural poverty. 
The other liturgy we attended was in Xi’an, familiar to tourists as the home of the famous terra cotta soldiers. We were greeted outside the St. Francis Cathedral by the bishop, one of the few prelates approved by both the Vatican and by the Chinese government, who invited the priests among us to concelebrate the Mass. The pews held about 300 worshippers, and a double line of small blue plastic stools in each of the side aisles accommodated another 80. Most arrived a half-hour before Mass to practice singing the hymns and prayers that filled the old church with a very joyful noise. 
Though I know there’s still a long road to full mutual acceptance between Rome and Beijing, our tour left me amazed at how open the church is and how vibrant the Chinese Catholic community has become. I am thankful for this opportunity to have witnessed the true universality of our faith.
To learn more about the China Bureau, its mission, and its activities, visit www.uscatholicchina.org. The site will soon have links to more photographs and stories from the 2017 study tour.
Marian J. Barber is the director of the Catholic Archives of Texas. For more information, contact her at (512) 476-6296 or marian@txcatholic.org.