Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


Despite persecution, Catholic Church in China growing

by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the April 8, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

Dr. Anthony Clark (IR file photo)

The Catholic Church has a long history in China, characterized by adventures that would impress Indiana Jones and faith of heroic proportions. When it comes to Catholicism in China, Anthony Clark, Ph.D., professor of Chinese History at Spokane’s Whitworth University and part-time archivist for the Diocese of Spokane, is one of the best informed individuals not only in the United States, but in the world.

Dr. Clark will give a presentation on “The Catholic Church in China” on Wednesday, April 14, at 6:30 p.m., in the conference room of St. Francis Xavier Parish, 3715 N. Standard St., Spokane.

The author of two books on ancient Chinese history, Dr. Clark said that “the most famous Catholic foreign missionary, after St. Francis Xavier – who was a missionary to Japan – is Matteo Ricci, who like Francis Xavier was a Jesuit. He was an Italian Jesuit who went to China and died in 1610. So this year is the 400th anniversary of Matteo Ricci’s death. He invented the so-called accommodationist strategy of missions, and this is the official Catholic method of mission work today and has been since Matteo Ricci’s life. Because of this anniversary, 2010 is an official jubilee year, established by Pope Benedict XVI for the whole church. This is also why the church in China is getting so much attention right now.”

Before the time of Ricci, said Dr. Clark, missionaries wore their European Religious habits, churches were built in western architectural styles, and so forth. Ricci changed all that by concluding that Catholicism could be authentic in China without clinging to western styles of dress, architecture, and even philosophy. Ricci wore the clothing of a Confucian scholar, and he built churches that looked Chinese rather than European.

“Just as Roman Catholicism looks Roman, Chinese Catholicism looks Chinese,” said Dr. Clark. “In fact, even today the Protestant method of foreign missions copies the Jesuit method of foreign mission, except that it’s very Bible-centered.”

Given the heavy Catholic influence in China during the 17th century, why then didn’t China become a Catholic country?

“That’s a really difficult question to answer,” Dr. Clark said. “When the missionaries were going to China, they were being brought by foreign ships, French, Italian, Portuguese military ships that were merchant ships. What the Chinese didn’t know was that the missionaries were opposed to the military and merchant agendas of the governments. There was a saying in China that when Christianity arrived in China it arrived on the barrel of a gun. From the Chinese point of view, the missionaries and the gunships they arrived on were the same thing. So China viewed Christian missions as an imperialist enterprise, and to get past that impression was almost impossible for the missionaries. Even though the missionaries opposed it, whenever there was an antagonism between the missionaries and Chinese officials, the Italian, or the French, or the German, or the Portuguese government would come and sort of bully the local Chinese officials. So Christianity has had a rough time settling into Chinese society, largely because of the governments that were connected with the missionaries who went to China.”

Nevertheless, Catholic and Protestant missionary efforts in China did, indeed, bear fruit. In our own time, in China there are both a government approved Catholic Church – the so-called “patriotic” church – and an underground Catholic Church that is not approved.

“The lines between these two groups are disintegrating very rapidly right now,” said Dr. Clark. “The underground Church is about two-thirds larger than the ‘patriotic’ Catholic community, and the underground Church has priests and bishops who are not sanctioned by the Chinese government and who are much more persecuted than in the above-ground Catholic Church, although they’re both persecuted by the government. Today in China the above-ground Catholic Church and the underground Catholic Church have begun to collaborate more than ever before. When I visit China now, I see bishops from the two communities living together; they’re room mates. Many people don’t know this. It’s also true, however, that there are far more priests and bishops who are in prison than we know about.”

Today, Dr. Clark said, the offices for the ‘patriotic’ Catholic association are actually ‘fronts;’ many of them empty. Still, the Chinese government would very much like to see Catholicism disappear.

In 1949, when the Communist government took over China, there were 4 million Christians – Catholics and Protestants – and the government’s agenda was to eliminate religion, especially Christianity, because it was viewed as foreign and imperialist, he said. But since 1949 the number of Christians in China has risen from 4 million to 40 million; and the fastest growing religion in China is Christianity.

“The difference,” Dr. Clark said, “is that there used to be more Catholics than Protestants; now there are more Protestants than Catholics. There are 30 million Protestants and 10 million Catholics. Christianity has become a thorn in the government’s side because it is growing so quickly.”

Dr. Clark attributes much of the difference between the Catholic and Protestant numbers in China to how difficult it is to train priests and get them into local ministries. “To be a priest in China requires four to six years of education,” he said. “But to be a (Protestant) pastor requires nothing but a sign on your door. There are no mechanisms with which one legitimizes oneself as a pastor in Protestant Christianity in China. So people just open house churches at random. In China, you go to a Starbucks and you find a Protestant Bible study. You couldn’t do that before the Olympics,” hosted by China in 2009. “Protestants are more bold. They’ll go to a Starbucks or some other coffee shop, and they’ll wear crosses. Catholicism cherishes sacraments as well as Scripture, so we need trained, qualified priests. Seminaries are watched by the government, and it takes so long to become a priest. The vocation crisis in the West is not nearly as critical as it is in China.”

During his last visit to China, last fall, Dr. Clark visited several seminaries. “They’re growing,” he said. “I would say that, by and large, there is more of a fervor for Catholicism in China than I see even in America. The Catholic seminaries are filling up, and the Catholic churches are packed. People are outside in the courtyard, kneeling, because they can’t fit inside the church. The problem is that the seminaries have just started to fill in the last couple of years, and the seminarians have a long way to go before they’re ordained. The problem is that there are very few priests in churches now.”

Still, 98 percent of the priests and bishops in China are sanctioned by the Vatican, as are the seminaries which are, technically, ‘patriotic’ seminaries, he said. The Catholic Church in China is now “growing very rapidly, the seminaries are filling, the churches are overfull, but still there is an absolute naiveté” in American news media about the Catholic Church in China. “They think that the Vatican is always sending secret emissaries from Religious orders into China. But when I last visited the main Chinese seminary last fall, which is in Beijing, the director told me that, at most, the Vatican sends someone every three years.”

There are foreign missionaries in China, Dr. Clark said, “but they are illegal, and the Religious orders won’t say how many of their members are there. It would be too dangerous for such knowledge to become public. There are Vincentians, and Jesuits, and Franciscans from the U.S. and Europe, but officially they are there as teachers or business people. It’s against the law in China to be there as a foreign missionary. But surreptitiously they offer Mass. If they want to preside at a Mass for a Chinese group they have to sneak around about it.”


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