In this Catholic World Report column, I will be providing monthly reports on the situation of the Church in China. Today, China has the world’s fastest growing economy, the fastest growing cities, the second fastest growing population, and probably the fastest growing number of Christians. When Chairman Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic in China in 1949 there were around four million Christians in China. Today, 63 years later, there are around 70 million.
I was in China a few months ago with several Catholic friends, with whom I discussed the situation of the Church in that country, prayed, and visited new places with histories both sad and joyful. During my many visits to China over the years, I have learned that faith is strong there, perhaps—who am I to judge?—even stronger than in my own country. In a country ostensibly cut off from the Holy Father, I have seen a deeper commitment to him than I have in any other place. In a country seemingly divided into two Catholic communities I have seen greater unity than I have observed elsewhere.
And in a country where Catholics have lived a life of, as they say, chiku (“eating bitterness”), I have seen countless faithful bear witness to Henry David Thoreau’s remark, “The smallest seed of faith is better than the largest fruit of happiness.”
It would be easy to write a column each month on the “suffering Church” in China—reporting arrests, church closures, and state-Church tensions. But that would be a misrepresentation of what Catholic life is like in China today in the 21st century. It would also be easy to read official state sources about religion in China and report on how China’s Catholics are thriving and happy under their new state leaders. But I shall attempt to report on what is really happening in China’s Catholic Church, taking as my motto Flannery O’Connor’s insightful quip, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
The Church in China Today
In the opening line of his 2007 encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI began with the words of St. Paul to the Romans: “Spe salvi facti sumus,” in hope we were saved. I think that one of the more positive trends in the Church in China today is the trend toward a sense of hope. And it was Benedict XVI who, on February 18, 2012, bestowed the red hat to Hong Kong’s Bishop John Tong, making him a cardinal. It marked an important moment in the future of the Catholic history of China; Tong is only the seventh Chinese man to be elected a cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church, and he is the first Hong Kong-born Chinese to receive this honor. Cardinal Tong’s appointment is significant, not only as he is in many ways the successor of his influential Chinese predecessor, Joseph Cardinal Zen, but because Tong is uniquely informed regarding the state of the Church in China today.