GOING TO MASS IN CHINA
I recently had the opportunity to spend 12 months in China as teacher.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Although the authorities took a strong line against any activity that might have been considered evangelizing, we were allowed to attend church and join in Mass with the local Christians.
The first time was the most memorable.
A Chinese friend agreed to take me into the Wuchang town center to the church. «Be ready at 6.30!» she said. «So Mass is at seven?» I asked.
«Oh no, Mass is at 9.30.»
It turns out that in China, the good Christians are in the church at least two hours beforehand. When we arrived at church, it was almost full at 7.30.
Firstly, we practiced the hymns, not once but 12 or 15 times until everyone was word perfect!
Then there was the preliminary reading of the gospel and scriptures of the day, not just the actual passages, but some chapters before and after the passages, so that the congregation could understand the context.
Just before the Mass started, it was quiet recollection time.
I felt guilty recalling the times, I had swept into the church car park at five to nine and dived into a back pew in the nick of time!
When we arrived at the church there was a wall about 10 foot high all the way around, with just one narrow gateway.
On either side was a fully armed guard with a machine gun.
I thought I ‘d never been to Mass before with the congregation checked out by armed guards.
During the week, there was still a guard at the church.
All the churches in China are the property of the state.
The sate at least pays for the maintenance, but it means that if anyone wants to pay a visit, they have to pay a fee of about one yuan to the guard. In a society with an average wage of forty yuan a week, that translates into about $10 in Australian terms.
Imagine paying $10 to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.
Yet every time I went into a Chinese church during the week, there were always three or four people there praying.
At 9.30 sharp, Father Feng entered with the choir and a huge troop of altar boys.
Fr Feng is an elderly man who walks with a bad limp.
I was told he has been beaten up several times and spent time in prison during the Cultural Revolution.
One beating was particularly severe, his elbows and knees were broken.
Yet he is a cheerful man an talked happily to me after Mass.
Last year he had a heart attack and considered it God’s sign that he must work harder, because he did not have much time left of earth.
He refused to talk about any of his trials:
«that little story is for God alone.» Mass that Sunday took just over two hours.
I estimated that there had been over a thousand people crammed into the church, most of them younger people.
After Mass, I had the opportunity to talk to a number of them.
One is a bus conductor. I asked her what made her become a Christian. She said that one day a passenger got on and asked for 30 return tickets to the city.
She asked why on earth he wanted 30 tickets when one would do.
He said, «I have just become a Christian.»
The bus conductor had never heard of Christ or Christianity and she asked what that had to do with it.
So he replied, «But Christ told us to love people and not to cheat anyone.
In the past, I have cheated the bus company by getting on the bus and hiding in the crowd and not paying my fare.
Now I want to make up for that and pay my fare for all the times I have no.»
The Religious Affairs Bureau now estimates that there are more than 20 million Christians in China and Christianity is growing faster than any other religious group.
There are now more Christians in China than Australia, and the quality of their faith is like gold, purified in recent persecution.
Fr. Frank Garcia, Australia.