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The Church in China: Cultivating the Pearl of Faith
By Jane O'Shaughnessy, R.S.C.J.
The Catholic Church in China today, with its many struggles, reminds us that we are all part of one Church.


A Tested Faith
A New Era
Training Future Leaders
One Small Change
Exchanging Gifts
Newfangled Missionary
Key Dates in Chinese Catholicism
Fast Facts About the Church in China

Photo by Sr. Janet Carroll, MM

On the plane, I wondered why I was going. I didn’t know that my mother’s early words of the poor, starving children in China or Maryknoll’s pictured faces of pleading Asian children or stories in children’s books of little ones in padded jackets flying kites in Chinese villages had settled so deeply in my heart.

I arrived in Taiwan in May 1998 as an associate of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, for a six-week visit to assist the sisters in any way I could, and to respond to my own long-standing love for Chinese culture. My husband had died the year before. I was at a crossroads in my life, attentive to the invitation of God’s spirit.

I came home and went back to Taiwan for four years, each year living in community with these religious sisters. As a student at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, I spent a semester in Taiwan, studying “transcultural religious life” and making my way to Buddhist monasteries in Hong Kong and Taiwan and to R.S.C.J. communities in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Joining a delegation of teachers and students from Andover-Newton School of Theology in June 2000, I visited Hong Kong, Nanjing, Shanghai and Hangchou, including the Catholic seminary in Shanghai. This immersion in Christianity in China awakened new compassion and concern for the Chinese faithful.

For 30 years the pearl of faith was secretly and fervently sheltered as Mao Zedong’s despotic power stretched across China. Even during the rampages of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976—when the most violent persecutions occurred, when thousands of Chinese Christians, clergy and religious were imprisoned, when Bibles that were not furtively buried were burned in piles of their owners’ belongings—the faith survived.

In 1949, there were 3.5 million Catholics in China, a marginal group at the time. In the early 1980s, China committed to a period of “reform and opening,” and the five major religions that had formerly been practiced in China (Taoism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam) entered into a vibrant period of reawakening and new growth.

In 1982, China’s new constitution recognized freedom of religious belief. This affirmed the right to engage in “normal” religious activities, although all were strictly controlled by the Chinese central government’s Religious Affairs Bureau.

The Catholic Church suffered division initially as Catholics tried to remain faithful to the Vatican, which is seen by the Chinese government as an independent state government and, therefore, problematic for a country trying to remain autonomous. Chinese Catholics were required to submit to the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The lines are somewhat porous, and basically Catholics are said to belong to either the “open” or “underground” Catholic community.

Since this time of reopening, Pope John Paul II has been prayed for at every Mass. In February 1989, a Chinese government document allowed for “spiritual affiliation” with the Holy See. Two months later the Chinese bishops’ conference publicly acknowledged the pope as spiritual leader of the Chinese Catholic Church. Despite the tension and still unresolved difficulties within this divided Church, the faith is prospering.

Now there are an estimated 12 to 15 million Catholics—still a marginal group among China’s nearly 1.3 billion people—but a group that brings to mind the early Christians, eager to live their faith.

In meeting with the leaders and students of the seminaries in several major cities of China, it was evident to me that this groundswell of Christianity is clearly good news for a long-suffering people, whose hunger is fed in the churches being built anew. Library shelves are being restocked and social programs reestablished. A post-denominational Chinese Christian Church and a Chinese Catholic Church give form to the followers of Jesus without the imposing weight of Western imperialism and colonialism.

I was particularly moved by our visit to Sheshan seminary in Shanghai, one of 12 official Catholic major seminaries, and the only Catholic seminary we visited.

As we sat in the customary circle, with cups of tea to welcome us, we heard of the unique difficulties facing the Catholic Church in China. They were trying to implement the changes of Vatican II, which gave new life to the rest of the Catholic world at a time when China was still quite closed off from the global community.

Despite China’s one-child policy and the significance of the son in the Chinese family system, there are still more men waiting to enter seminaries than there is space available. And until very recently, there has been only scant theological education available for women religious—let alone the laity. It has been very challenging for the older religious sisters to mentor the thousands of much younger women who are entering the diocesan religious congregations.

And yes, Chinese Catholics struggle in varying degrees within a situation where some attend the “open” or registered Church and others, often within the same family, reject the regulations imposed by the government. They remain affiliated with the “underground” or unregistered community. Hearing their stories opened my heart to the complex situation of the Chinese Catholic Church.

Generations of people were not educated in the faith during the 30 years that the churches were closed. In fact, Chinese bishops have stated that education is the most pressing need for Church leadership today.

The main purpose of the Andover-Newton trip was to network with the Chinese Christian seminaries and offer possibilities for the U.S. Christian churches and schools to support the evolving new post-denominational Christian Church in China. In similarly grassroots fashion, Catholic organizations are finding ways to assist our Catholic sisters and brothers in China.

The summer of 2003 brought me to the office of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau, established with the approval of the U.S. Catholic Conference in 1989 to promote a more active interchange among the several religious orders formally active in mission in China; and to foster mutual understanding between the U.S. Catholic Church and the Catholic Church in China.

One of its most important endeavors is collaborating with the “Chinese Seminary Teachers & Formators Project,” coordinated by the Maryknoll Society, in consultation with bishops in China and under the direction of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Together with assistance from the religious orders and several Catholic universities and seminaries, graduate studies are provided in theology and other essential disciplines for priests and women religious that are simply not available in China.

Each year the Chinese priests and religious studying in the United States gather for a weeklong retreat given by Chinese Catholic laity. The students delight in these reunions with one another, converging—usually at Maryknoll, New York, a place they called home in the United States—from various schools around the country.

The conferences focus on theology, spirituality and psychology, in addition to offering time for reflection together. This time together helps weave their new thoughts and experiences into a more developed framework, something that will be helpful when they return to their leadership positions in the Chinese Catholic Church.

Their coming together also offers a privileged time for collaboration. Upon their return to China they will be scattered across a vast country, tending to the many needs of their people.

As a student at Catholic Theological Union, I have had many conversations with Chinese religious. Although they appreciate the freedom that exists in this country, they are understandably careful in their expression, and do not want to have their names used. In reference to the labeling of “open” or “underground,” one student said, “I hate these words. We have just one Church that developed in two parts because of a complicated historical situation.”

This is also the official response of the Vatican. In October 2003, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, former president of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, said, “There is only one Church with two faces,” concerning the situation in China.

It is a painful situation, yet we as members of the same body are called to solidarity with Chinese Catholics in their efforts to reconcile the events of the past, as horrifying as they may have been, and work toward a future that speaks of the reign of God.

On various campuses and seminaries here in the United States, these students are also studying and participating in ecumenical work and interfaith dialogue. This gives them the tools for reconciliation and promotes confidence in an ability to work toward unity within the Catholic Church.

In October 2001, a papal message to the Chinese people acknowledged that Christian missionaries in China have made mistakes and created misunderstandings and injustices. Pope John Paul II personally expressed regret and asked for forgiveness. He constantly calls for reconciliation and unity in this Church that is so painfully wounded and struggles for integrity. The Holy See seeks to identify and affirm qualified leaders who can effect this reconciliation.

But for many years the appointment of bishops, so necessary for this growing Church, has been a continual source of tension between the Vatican and the Chinese government. Because the pope’s exercise of leadership in the juridical and governing structures of the Church in China is not welcomed by the political regime, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, established by the government, oversees the selection of replacement bishops when diocesan sees become vacant, without recourse to the Holy See.

More recently in practice, however, these matters are being mutually resolved in a manner acceptable to all concerned. It is common knowledge that the great majority of Catholic bishops in China today are in full communion with the Holy See, their episcopal orders duly legitimated.

Although the officials on all sides sometimes appear to be at odds, concessions are often made in small ways, offering support for a suffering Church. For instance, on the Feast of Epiphany this year, Bishop Peter Feng Xinmao was ordained coadjutor bishop of Hengshui Diocese in Hebei Province. He holds a master’s degree in canon law from Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, and is the first bishop ordained since 1980 to hold a foreign degree. His ordination was the hard-earned result of two years of negotiations between priests and civil authorities.

His ordination ceremony began with a reading of Pope John Paul II’s letter of appointment in the diocesan cathedral. A procession through the city to the Hall of the People followed, where the letter of approval from the government was read. The ordination Mass, which was attended by about 1,500 people, was also a celebration of a historical event of mutual agreement between Church and state.

The questions that are raised for me center around the reciprocity that exists in any meaningful relationship. The opportunities for education and enriching interchange in the United States are obvious, and clearly something that we, as Americans, have to offer. We also have many resources available to remain informed about the reality of our brothers and sisters in the world.

The missionary magazines that lay on our coffee table long ago planted a desire in my heart to respond to the needs of the Chinese people. C. S. Song, a Chinese theologian, advises, “The ability to listen—to listen well and deeply—to the whispers, voices, groaning and shouts from the depths of Asian humanity has become an essential part of our doing Christian theology in Asia.” It has been said that the Chinese “swallow the tears into the stomach.”

I recall the words of one young woman who said she did not drink water all day before our afternoon group sharing because she didn’t want to cry. Sharing what lies not too far below the surface might mean remembering the atrocities of the past, the stories of family, friends or clergy who had been imprisoned and tortured, or even harassed by other family members. This is the reality of the past with which the Chinese live. They hold it all in their hearts, trying to set it to rest and move toward new life.

Whether our encounters are casual or a time of greater involvement, it is helpful to be aware of our shared history as members of the same Church. My life has been enriched, confronted, challenged and blessed through my relationships with Chinese Catholics.

When I asked one of the young priests what he would say the Chinese Church has to offer the American Church, he answered, “Our suffering, our sacrifice and our lives.”

We have much to learn from these disciples who have so faithfully followed Jesus through the darkness of their times. Their willingness to pursue living the gospel in spite of such adversity should be encouraging to us as their brothers and sisters. To come to know the Chinese faithful, to drink tea and hear their stories, has been a life-giving experience that continues to speak to me of the universal and communal relationship of the people of God.            

Information about programs of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau (U.S.C.C.B.) can be found at The U.S.C.C.B. publishes the China Church Quarterly, sponsors the National Catholic China Conference annually and organizes religious study tours to China for small groups of U.S. Catholics. Offices are located at Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ 07079.


Two memories planted the seed to be a Chinese missionary in my life. As a very young child, I can remember looking at a picture of a Franciscan friar in a white habit, riding some kind of mule or donkey and crossing a river somewhere in China. Something about that picture fascinated me.

The second memory was watching the evening news as a 15-year-old. On that particular evening in 1970, Walter Cronkite showed a video clip of Maryknoll Bishop James Walsh walking to freedom as he crossed a bridge from present-day Guangzhou (then Canton) to Hong Kong. Imprisoned for over 20 years, Bishop Walsh was the last and longest-held foreign clergyman to be released from prison by the Chinese Communist government.

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect my childhood desire to be a Chinese missionary would be realized. But, as most of us know, we should never say “never” when it comes to the gifts of God in our lives.

I still remember the afternoon, some 15 years ago, when I read the letter from the general minister of the Franciscan Order, John Vaughn, O.F.M. He was inviting the 17,000 friars in the world to consider joining the O.F.M. China Project, an undefined missionary attempt of the Franciscan Order to reclaim and rejuvenate our long history and tradition of missions in mainland China. I say “undefined missionary attempt” precisely because, at that time, no one really knew just how we would re-enter China, considering the restrictions placed by the Chinese Communist government upon foreign clergy. Nevertheless, I read that letter and knew my time had come.

Another American friar and I were the pioneers of the new O.F.M. China Project and what we hoped would be a new wave of missionary activity in mainland China. This year, there are 11 friars in the O.F.M. China Project hailing from the Philippines, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Croatia, Hong Kong and the United States.

The Chinese government continues to forbid foreign missionaries from living and ministering in China in traditional ways. This, however, poses no major hindrance to the Franciscan approach to missionary activity. In his earlier Rule, St. Francis reminds those who live among nonbelievers that one way of living the gospel life is by refusing to engage in arguments and disputes and placing one’s life at the service of others. Francis adds that foreign missionaries may proclaim the word of God only when “they see that it pleases the Lord.”

Practically speaking, a foreigner living in mainland China needs a full-time job in order to obtain the necessary visa and resident permit. I taught English in Chinese universities in Wuhan and Beijing for over three years. Though my students knew that I was a practicing Catholic, I did not speak to them of my life as a friar and a priest. That would have been risky—and perhaps even jeopardized my continuing presence in China. My English discussion classes were often values-based, treating topics such as acceptance of others, respect for the environment and the importance of compassion.

From teaching, I moved to the business world. I accepted a job as the director of human resources for Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, one of the “Big Five” accounting firms at the time. As the human resources (HR) director for Deloitte’s Beijing office, I was responsible for 350 Chinese employees. The majority of the employees knew that I was a priest—but, like most Chinese, had no real understanding of what that entailed.

The great challenge in my role as HR director was to bring gospel values to a marketplace setting. I used to e-mail my family and friends and joke, “St. Francis entered the marketplace and then was converted to God. I converted to God—and then entered the marketplace!”

I was fortunate enough on weekends to minister as a priest. I was the pastor for the English-speaking foreign community of Roman Catholics in Beijing. We were a community of over 500 people from 27 different countries. Because my ministry was exclusively centered upon the embassy grounds of Canada and the United Kingdom and because local Chinese were forbidden to attend, I had no fears of reprisal or punishment by the Chinese government.

For 11 years of my life, I was lucky enough to live my childhood dream of being a Chinese missionary—but a “newfangled one” at that.

Father Albert Haase, O.F.M., now teaches theology at Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois.


There are an estimated 12 to 15 million Catholics in China: Four to five million Catholics belong to the “open” Church, and eight to 10 million to the “underground” Church.

• China has 135 dioceses and approximately 5,500 churches.

• There are about 130 bishops in China today; 49 of the 79 bishops in the “open” Church are recognized by the Vatican, as well as 49 in the “underground” Church. The Vatican does not recognize about 30 bishops.

• Bishop Li Du An of Xian is suspected to be the secret “in pectore” cardinal Pope John Paul II named in September 2003.

• There are 24 official major seminaries in China and 10 seminaries for the “underground” Church.

• There are 1,200 priests in the “open” Church and 1,000 in the “underground.”

• Because of the Cultural Revolution, the 45- to 60-year-old age group is missing among priests.

• There are roughly 3,600 sisters in China.

• Twenty-five hundred sisters are in formation in more than 40 novitiates of the “open” Church and 20 in the “underground” Church.


  609               Monk-bishop Alopen arrives in Xian.

  845               Christianity is banned in China.

  1294              Franciscan John of Monte Corvino arrives in Beijing.

  1368              Newly established Ming dynasty bans Christianity.

  1601              Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrives in Beijing and begins a ministry in the imperial court.

  1742              Pope Benedict XIV condemns the “Chinese Rites” and requires missionaries there to take an oath upholding that decision.

  1842-87         China signs treaties with various foreign governments; Christian missionaries gain new rights.

  1900              Boxer Uprising; over 16,000 Christians executed (all except about 200 were Chinese).

  1946              Hierarchy is established in China; most bishops are foreign-born and members of religious congregations.

  1949              Mao Zedong comes to power.

  1950              Foreign missionaries start being forced out.

  1955              Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association begins.

  1950-66         Chinese-born clergy are severely restricted.

  1966-76         Cultural Revolution sends government-recognized and Vatican-recognized clergy to prison.


Jane O’Shaughnessy, R.S.C.J., recently made her first vows with the Society of the Sacred Heart. She is a widowed mother of two daughters and one granddaughter. Her writing has also appeared in Sacred Journey.

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