A rare glimpse into how an ‘underground’ Chinese Catholic church celebrates Christmas
Worshippers gather for a secret mass in a factory compound while Vatican and Beijing explore ways of healing fractured ties
It was eerily quiet on Christmas Eve in a manufacturing hub city in Pearl River Delta, with machinery silent, except at one factory compound, the temporary gathering point for Catholics who were singing carols.
About three hundred people came to the site to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Dazzling fireworks were set off within the plant at about 11pm. The crowd then went to a factory canteen for a quick meal and at midnight mass began in a prayer hall converted from a workshop.
The location of the underground mass was kept secret fearing a crackdown from the government. Only referrals were allowed to attend the mass, and photographs were banned for security reasons
But despite the humble setting of the mass compared to the cathedrals endorsed by the government, there was a sense of peace and joy in the air. The congregation shared home-made soup to warm themselves before the midnight mass while many chatted and caught up with each other as they live in different parts of Guangdong. Some only see each other at important festivals like Easter and Christmas.
A dozen rows of benches to kneel at were installed last year and a priest invited at the last minute heard confessions, according to a member of the congregation who refused to be named for fear of persecution.
“More people came this year because it’s a weekend,” said a 48-year-old Catholic worshipper.
She said most worshippers don’t go to a Beijing-sanctioned Catholic church because they only recognises the spiritual authority of the Pope.
The Communist Party expelled Catholic missionaries after it took power in 1949 and it has rejected the authority of the Holy See.
The Vatican, meanwhile, refused to recognise Beijing-appointed bishops publicly until last month when two Chinese bishops were ordained on the mainland.
In past years, the Vatican occasionally endorsed some Beijing ordained bishops in internal communications but never in public.
Last month the Holy See nevertheless made it public that it had endorsed two Beijing ordained bishops.
The move was seen as the latest sign of slowly improving ties between Beijing and the Vatican after years of hostility
The gathering of Catholics in the heart of China’s manufacturing hub forms part of what is described by the Chinese authorities as an “underground church”.
However, despite persistent hostility from the Communist Party towards religious activities outside government control, the influence of Christianity is rising fast in China, officially an atheist country.
A government white paper published in 2000 said there were about four million Catholics and 10 million Protestants in China, figures calculated on the number of worshippers attending government-sanctioned churches.
The Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily estimated two years ago that the number of
Protestants in China ranged between 23 million and 40 million. The number of Catholics in China is estimated to be between eight million and 12 million, but most worship in government-sanctioned churches, controlled by the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Rodney Pennington, who studies religious trends for the mission organisation OMF International, said in an interview with The Christian Post published in July that China would have the world’s largest Christian population by 2030.
China’s atheist government does not allocate public holidays for Christmas, but the festival is increasingly followed as a social celebration by the young.
In Guangzhou, crowds flocking to the Sacred Heart Cathedral, a government endorsed church, began to fill the streets before 7pm on Christmas Eve.
Built in 1863, the Gothic twin towered cathedral remains one of the grandest in China and Southeast Asia.
More than 1,000 new arrivals, mostly tourists, gathered to line up for Christmas Eve masses every 45 minutes amid a heavy police presence.
A 23-year-old Catholic from eastern Guangdong province, who declined to give their full name, said she has regularly worshipped at the Sacred Heart for the past four years.
“Individual priests would give sermons mixed with patriotic messages, reminding the congregation to love the party and nation especially when government officials were present for inspection,” she said.
“The majority of the congregation are not aware or do not know how to identify illegally appointed bishops and associated priests,” she said.
“I do not discuss this with other Catholics, but I differentiate them in my heart.”
She said she would only make confession with priests she knew well and avoids going to masses given by priests who work for bishops not approved by the Vatican.
The divide between Beijing and the Vatican could take some time to heal.
Lei Shiyin, a government backed bishop excommunicated by the Vatican, appeared a bishop’s ordination in China in November.
Three days before Christmas, the Vatican commented for the first time on the matter, saying it had created anxiety and unease among many Catholics and the Vatican “shared this pain”.
In the same statement, the Vatican said it hoped Beijing would give “positive signals that would help [all Catholics in China] have trust in dialogue between the civil authorities and the Holy See and hope for a future of unity and harmony”.
Vatican-approved bishops and their priests who reject Communist Party control are routinely placed under surveillance and run the risk of severe punishment.
A member of an unsanctioned Catholic church who refused to be named as he said he had been persecuted for his religious beliefs, said he was watching the Vatican’s hopes of healed ties with Beijing with caution.
“I’m not at all positive and frankly a bit worried, too” he said.
Father Paul Wang, a government ordained priest from southern China, said even with normalised ties, there was unlikely any significant increase in the number of Catholics in China.
“It only shows a normalised relationship on the top. I don’t think [the government] will do anything to help religious growth on the ground as there are calls [from Beijing] to uphold [Communist] ideology,” he said.
In a sign of government wariness about religious growth, mobile phone messages were sent out by university management committees across the nation days before Christmas urging students to refrain from celebrating Christmas as it was deemed a “western festival”.
Students were asked to concentrate on their studies and students of foreign language were particularly warned to stay away from Christmas parties organised by lecturers.
But Father Wang said the normalisation of ties was still important to solve the dilemma faced by many Catholics in China.
“We only wish both sides to reach consensus. After all, one of the foundations of faith for Catholics is to obey the Pope. This applies to Catholics around the world for over 1,000 years ... so it’s problematic when religion issues get mixed up with politics,” he said.