Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Emerging Church in China

by Annie Lam


A Chinese journalist reports on the current state of Catholicism in China.

Larger Work

The Priest



Publisher & Date

Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, July 1998


Christianity was first recorded in Chinese history during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when a Nestorian monk arrived in China in 636. Christianity was officially allowed until it was banned in 845. By 1289, Christianity revived in China when Archbishop John Montecorvino was on a diplomatic mission to the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368).

Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci and other missionaries further developed Christianity in China beginning in the late-16th century. By 1685, the first Chinese priest, Luo Wenzao (Gregorius Lopez), was ordained the first Chinese bishop in China.

By the end of the Qing Dynasty (1911), the Catholic Chinese population was estimated to be 1.3 million, with 520 Chinese priests. In 1922, Archbishop Celso Costantini was appointed the first apostolic delegate to China. In 1946, the Church hierarchy was established in China, with 20 ecclesiastical provinces, 79 dioceses and 20 vicariates. The first Chinese cardinal, Thomas Tian (Tien) Gengxin was installed the same year.

The founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 marked a new era in the development of the Catholic Church in China. Two years later, the communist government expelled Vatican internuncio Archbishop Antonio Riberi, followed by other missionaries in the following years. In addition, all Catholic institutions were nationalized, and arrests, persecution and harassment of clergy, nuns and lay people began in earnest.

In 1957, the government-recognized Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association — which upholds the principles of independence, autonomy and self-administration — was set up. Since 1958, this "open" Church in China has elected and ordained its own bishops without papal approval.

The Catholic Church, as well as other religions, suffered further persecution during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). All religious activities were virtually banned.

With the reform policies that were introduced in late 1978, the Catholic Church within the government-approved structure began a restoration. Persecuted religious personnel were gradually released, and Church properties were restored in the 1980s. Contacts with the universal Church — especially with those in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan — have also grown.


The bishops in China were absent from the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Asia held in the Vatican one week after Easter. Some of the Chinese bishops regretted that they could not attend the synod because of the difficulties of the China-Vatican diplomatic relations. Some of their voices were expressed through various means, including the bishops of Hong Kong, Taiwan and others in Asia. The Catholics in China have been unable to communicate with the universal Church for decades. The Chinese government regards the China-Vatican relationship as a political issue, which must be resolved by diplomatic means. However, the Catholics in and outside China still see the severance from an ecclesial perspective.

Little about the Asian synod was known to the bishops and the faithful in China, not to mention a position paper on the lineaments (guidelines) or the instrumentum laboris (working document). Some Chinese clerics learned about the assembly through Church publications from Hong Kong and through Vatican Radio and the Manila-based Radio Veritas. A few reports about the synod were carried in the official national magazine of the government-sanctioned Church, The Catholic Church in China, since 1997.

There are currently about 70 bishops for the 138 dioceses in the open Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC), which was established in 1980. Bishops' appointments have been a hurdle in the China-Vatican relationship since 1958, when the first Chinese bishops were ordained without papal approval. By February 1998, at least 133 bishops had been ordained in the government-recognized Church, of whom about 60 had died in the past decades.

Over the past 40 years, their ordinations have been regarded as valid but not legitimate. However, some of them have confessed religious allegiance to the Pope and are recognized quietly by him.

On the other hand, dozens of bishops in the underground Church have been ordained secretly since late 1970s. They were led by Bishop Peter Joseph Fan Xueyan of Baoding, who later died in 1992, Their ordinations were valid and legitimate. About 30 bishops and their representatives met in November 1989 at Sanyuan and established the Episcopal Conference in Mainland China. Not all the bishops attended. Participants subsequently were arrested in the following months, and some were sentenced to two or three years' imprisonment or to re-education and hard labor. During the meeting, Bishop Fan was named honorary president. Cardinal Ignatius Gong (Kung) Pinmei of Shanghai and Archbishop Dominic Tang Yee-ming of Canton were named honorary vice presidents, both of whom lived outside China. Archbishop Tang later died in the United States in 1995.

Most of the bishops from both sides have reached old age, in their 70s and 80s. The 44-year-old Bishop Fang Xinyao of Linyi, Shandong province, ordained in July 1997, is the youngest bishop in the BCCCC, and is probably younger than any of the underground bishops.

The bishops are generally respected by the Catholic laity. But occasionally there are rivalries between the bishops and the faithful. For example, in one case, the faithful and the bishop held opposing views on the decision by government town-planning officials to demolish an old church.


One of the major problems facing the Chinese bishops and their faithful is the reconciliation between the open and underground Catholic communities. But situations in different parts of the vast country vary widely. Sometimes, Catholics from both sides have good relationships with one another and discuss reconciliation and cooperation. In other cases, they are hostile toward one another.

Government control of the underground Catholics also differs from place to place. Some local government officials seem to endorse the bishop of the diocese as the leader of the community. But some officials refuse to acknowledge the bishop's title and address him as a priest instead. And arrests and harassment of underground Catholics in places such as Fujian, Hebei, Jiangxi, Heilongjiang and Shaanxi provinces have not ceased to this day.

Another problem faced by the Church is the quality of formation. Although government-approved seminaries and novitiates have been reopened since the 1980s, the demand for formation far exceeds supply. The lack of clergy and nuns limit the development of pastoral work and evangelization, especially in the countryside and remote areas.

More than 100 seminarians and priests have received scholarships or sponsorships to study abroad. Last March, the first two seminarians to St. Augustin, Germany, had returned to China to receive ordination and new assignments from their bishops to serve the dioceses.

Fewer nuns were sent overseas to receive further religious formation. The first group of nuns in the convent in Shanghai, eastern China, trained in the 1980s, made their perpetual vows last December.

Lack of theologians and formation directors at seminaries and novitiates has kept the question of formation stagnant. In order to solve this problem, some young priests in their 30s who are seminary lecturers have been sent overseas or to Hong Kong to attend exchange programs and learn more about current theology. Still, the demand for knowledgeable theologians is great. Since the late 1980s, theologians and Church people from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and foreign countries have lectured short courses in various seminaries. In the long run, the Church in China must have well-trained theologians to teach their own students in seminaries and novitiates.

Inadequate religious books and resources is another hindrance in the development of religious vocations, and subsequently affects the religious formation of the mass of lay people. To this day, in some minor seminaries and convents located inland, the libraries consist only of dozens of old religious and literature books on several wooden shelves.

Some teachers are former seminarians or retired schoolteachers who have some knowledge of Church doctrine. This is not enough for the formation of young priests and nuns who are facing many challenges from society. Already fewer religious vocations are found in cities and economically more viable places, probably as a result of the strict one-child policy in those regions.

At the same time, the development of evangelization in urban areas deserves attention. The Church has to meet the spiritual needs of university students, intellectuals and professionals in the cities.

Since many dioceses and parishes have limited sources of income, many have to rely on renting out Church properties or on overseas donations for support, if such means are even available. The lack of funds has restrained the development of the Church, open and underground alike, especially in the poverty-stricken regions.

The demolition of churches or church houses as a result of town development or property redevelopment has aroused disharmony between clerics and lay people, or between the local government and the local church, due to different views of old Church properties. The restoration of churches and Church properties that were occupied by non-Church units or residents, and the reconstruction of dilapidated churches, though requiring large amounts of money, generally tops the agenda of many parishes and dioceses.

Communion with the universal Church is yet another sensitive issue. Although contacts with the Church outside mainland China have bloomed in the past few years, the appointment of bishops, complicated by the China-Vatican relationship, still clouds the relations between the Chinese Church and the universal Church.

The Chinese government has reiterated its two conditions on the establishment of diplomatic ties with the Holy See: first, the Holy See must cut diplomatic relations with Taipei; second, it must not interfere in China's internal affairs, which also implicitly includes the appointment of Chinese bishops.

However, in local communities, many dioceses or parishes are operating social services, such as clinics, hospitals, homes for the elderly, orphanages, tutorial or vocational-training classes, medical classes and guest houses. Although the welfare and educational institutions are not operated directly under the name of the Catholic Church, people in the neighborhoods do recognize that the services are run by Church people — namely, by priests or nuns. Management and professionalism in the Church structure, as well as in Church-run social services, are issues the contemporary Church must pay attention to.

While China is adopting a market economy — which is particularly prosperous in the eastern coastal areas and major cities — materialism, money-mindedness, consumerism and individualism are prevalent and counter the preaching of spiritual values and morals.

For example, in one city there was a young priest who was troubled by all this. He wondered if Catholics could invest or speculate in the stock market, a new economic market created in Chinese cities in the recent decade, which some regard as immoral. He was rather disturbed by the way people threw their savings into the stock market. Such phenomena have affected the work of evangelization, as well as religious formation and the general impact of Church life, and cause worry among Catholics regarding the development of the Church in China.

The rural Church is a vital force for the Chinese Church. Catholics from the countryside, of whom many are illiterate and poor, helped preserve the faith during the hard times in the past and help support the Church in China today. In many places, thousands of peasants have converted to Catholicism, Many religious vocations have come from sons and daughters of rural families whose Catholic faith was passed down from generation to generation. In rural China, the development of strong Catholic communities has to be an important task for the Chinese Church today.

For instance, Easter is one of the four major Catholic feasts observed by the Catholics in China, particularly in the rural sector. Most Catholics attend Christmas liturgy, as it falls in winter when they are relieved from farm work. But Easter and Pentecost usually arrive during times of busy plowing and planting.

In spite of this, the peasants will leave aside their farm work and walk or travel for hours to attend Easter liturgy at churches. Crowds of Catholics pack the churches during Holy Week.

All in all, the Catholic Church in China has not contributed much to the universal Church in cultural, traditional or religious aspects, probably because of political reasons and the fact that the Chinese Church has not yet brought its full potential into play, in relation to other Asian churches and the universal Church in general. It will take some time for it to develop to the same level as other churches outside China.

The Church in China has to involve itself in development with, and alongside of, the masses, and strengthen evangelization among the Chinese people. The Church in China cannot be separated or isolated from the universal Church. The Church in China and the Church elsewhere in Asia, together with the universal Church, walks toward the future. In time, the Church in Asia will play an important role in the universal Church.

MISS LAM is a journalist for the Union of Catholic Asian News in Hong Kong.

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