10 Million Catholics in China Face Storm They Can’t Control

however the people most affected by these proposed modifications — residents in places like Mindong — say they feel a sense of powerlessness, as if awaiting a storm of which they cannot control.


A Catholic church in Lankou, a village inside the coastal Mindong region of southeastern China.

Lam Yik Fei for The fresh York Times

Many are less concerned about disputes over the clergy than about a hollowing out of Catholic life inside the Chinese countryside. Others say of which the outside world’s binary view of Chinese Catholicism — of loyalist underground church members along with government flunkies — misses more subtle realities on the ground.

“This kind of is actually something higher-ups will decide,” said Huang Xiaofeng, 40, a shopkeeper catering to pilgrims who visit a holy mountaintop cave. “We believers just go to church along with pray.”

The Vatican has already asked Guo Xijin, the underground bishop in Mindong, to yield his leadership of an estimated 70,000 Catholics to a government-appointed cleric who commands about 10,000 followers — a huge concession to Beijing.

Bishop Guo, 59, who has been a priest in Mindong since 1984, said in an interview of which he was willing to accede if the idea helped heal the long split between the underground along with government churches.

however he added of which the idea could not address larger problems of which are diminishing Catholicism here. “The main problem is actually believers’ educational level along with spiritual foundation,” he said. “They have belief, however there is actually no depth to the idea.”

Bishop Guo was referring to the fact of which while Catholicism is actually strongest in poorer, rural parts of China, the countryside is actually emptying out. A few decades ago 80 percent of Chinese lived in rural areas; today only half do.


Mindong has been a stronghold of Catholicism in China for centuries.

Lam Yik Fei for The fresh York Times

In areas like Mindong, of which has meant a collapse of churchgoing. Bishop Guo estimates of which more than a third of local Catholics have left Mindong to find work elsewhere. Almost all young people are gone, leaving villages dotted with churches used only on a rotating basis by a dwindling elderly population.

Mindong’s problems reflect a larger trend. According to surveys of the official along with underground churches by Anthony Lam, a researcher with the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, the total number of Catholics in China peaked around 2005 at 12 million along with has since declined to 10 million.

of which makes Catholicism the smallest major religious group in China, along with the only one of which is actually shrinking — even as some other faiths, especially Buddhism along with Protestantism, have grown rapidly amid a nationwide religious revival.

Visitors to the Bishop Bai Cave near Mr. Huang’s shop speak constantly of these challenges. Many are migrants working in cities like Shanghai. inside the days before the Chinese fresh Year, they come home to see their parents along with visit holy sites like the cave, where a Dominican friar hid by Qing dynasty soldiers inside the 1700s before being executed.

however few of them are practicing Catholics any more, along with their own children are growing up without the faith. There are Catholic churches inside the cities however they seldom reach out to migrants.

Lin Gang, 36, who left Mindong to open a shop in Changzhou, a prosperous city on the Yangtze River, said he rarely had time for church along with of which almost none of his neighbors there are Catholic.


As young people leave the countryside for jobs inside the cities, churchgoing has plummeted in Mindong. Bishop Guo estimates of which more than a third of local Catholics have left to find work elsewhere.

Lam Yik Fei for The fresh York Times

“If we could get off Sundays for Mass the idea could be easier,” he said. “however I have to keep the store open to take care of my family.”

“One’s faith grows weaker when one goes out to work,” he added.

The roots of the church’s problems in China go far back. The Qing emperor banned Christianity for about a century before Western powers forced the dynasty to let missionaries in again. When the Communists gained control of China in 1949, Catholicism was hit especially hard because of the Vatican’s strident opposition to communism.

The fresh government also expelled most foreigners by China, decapitating the Catholic Church, which had relied on foreigners to run its schools, orphanages, seminaries along with religious orders. Catholicism survived as a clan-based, rural religion without its old missionizing impulse.

In 1957, the authorities added to the church’s problems by setting up the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to replace the Vatican in appointing the clergy along with give Beijing’s atheist leaders control over the church.

Many worshipers resisted. They boycotted the government church in favor of underground churches led by clergy members whom they elected. Over time, the Vatican approved most of these locally appointed clergy. of which created two Catholic lineages in China: those appointed by Beijing along with those by the Vatican.

This kind of is actually the rift of which is actually the focus of the current negotiations. however the picture is actually more complicated than the idea seems.


The burial site in Shangwan Village of Miu Zishan, a Catholic priest who was persecuted by Communist zealots inside the 1960s along with died shortly after.

Lam Yik Fei for The fresh York Times

Many government-appointed bishops, for example, have quietly received the Vatican’s blessing. along with Pope Benedict said in 2007 of which loyal Catholics could worship in Chinese government-approved churches.

Even the term “underground” is actually largely a misnomer currently. Although some clergy have been detained along with face harassment, others mostly operate inside the open. In many places, underground Catholics have built their own churches, sometimes huge cathedrals, without government interference.

Bishop Guo, for example, lives in a seven-story residence next to a twin-spired church clad in white tiles. Mindong is actually dotted with dozens of these churches, many of them with soaring spires, chapels, residences along with nunneries, all of them technically illegal.

Moreover, many of the churches received construction permits with the help of Zhan Silu, the government-appointed bishop to whom the Vatican has asked Bishop Guo to cede his position.

Bishop Zhan declined to be interviewed, however local Catholics say he signed off on the permits to reach out to underground believers.

“the idea shows the idea’s not underground at all,” said Eugenio Menegon, a professor of history at Boston University, who wrote a book on Catholicism’s deep roots in Mindong. During his time inside the region, he said, he found of which the unofficial clergy often gets along fine with the local authorities.


“the idea makes no difference to me,” one resident said of the underground along with government-approved churches. “the idea is actually the Lord we believe in.”

Lam Yik Fei for The fresh York Times

Tensions arise when one side pushes the some other. Recently, the pressure has come by Beijing, which has adopted fresh regulations of which are meant in part to curb underground churches.

The Vatican’s desire to have Bishop Guo step aside in favor of Bishop Zhan also worries residents. Many feel they should be consulted on the appointment of their spiritual leader — an issue of which could come up in some other Chinese dioceses where the future of as many as 30 underground bishops is actually uncertain.

One lay nun whose order has deep roots in Mindong said Bishop Zhan could have difficulty running the diocese because most worshipers are inside the underground church along with support Bishop Guo. Still, she said of which if the Vatican recognized Bishop Zhan, she could obey.

Though weakened by migration along with buffeted by change, Mindong remains a place where one can still sense the planet of the Dominican friars who first brought Catholicism to these hilly shores inside the 1630s — along with the powers of faith of which can outlast politics.

Not far by Bishop Guo’s cathedral is actually Shangwan Village, the burial site of a Catholic priest named Miu Zishan who was persecuted by Communist zealots inside the 1960s along with died shortly after.

In front of his grave, Wu Saiqing, 49, was sleeping on a stone bed. Locals believe of which doing so cures illnesses, along with so Ms. Wu was there for a midday nap, hoping to improve her health.

Ms. Wu said her family’s Catholic roots dated to the 17th century. Two of her siblings serve the official church, one as a nun along with one as a priest. however she attends an underground church.

“the idea makes no difference to me,” Ms. Wu said. “the idea is actually the Lord we believe in.”

Correction: February 14, 2018

A picture caption with an earlier edition of This kind of article misidentified the location of a Catholic church. the idea is actually inside the village of Lankou, not in Ningde, a city nearby.

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