When China’s last empire, the Qing dynasty, ended in 1911, Christianity there entered what many scholars call the “Golden Age” of the missions. New Catholic churches, schools, orphanages and hospitals were emerging throughout the country, and parish photographs through the 1920s, 30s, and 40s reveal how intensely the Church had grown after the turbulence of the Boxer Uprising in 1900, when more than 30,000 Christians had been massacred.
One of the most important Catholic events during the Republican Era, which spanned the end of the Qing in 1911 to the beginning of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, was instigated by the French Lazarist Fr Frédéric-Vincent Lebbe, who formed a powerful movement to unfetter the Catholic community in China from foreign control. Lebbe himself became a Chinese citizen the better to advocate a more indigenous Catholic clergy and hierarchy.
Largely owing to Lebbe’s tireless work on behalf of the Chinese Church, Pope Pius XI invited six Chinese priests to St Peter’s in 1926; the pope himself ordained them bishops. This began an era during which China’s Church finally had its own native bishops and an increasing number of local priests. After the collapse of imperial China in 1911, Chinese Catholics grew increasingly patriotic, and having their own bishops represented a welcome stage of growth in their national Church.
After 1949, when Mao Zedong stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace and announced that “the people of China have stood up”, the Communist Party under his leadership began a swift and effective campaign to deport all of China’s foreign missionaries, and diminish, if not eradicate, the Catholic Church in China.
In 1951, many churches and other properties were confiscated under the Land Reform Law, and around 5,000 foreign priests and sisters were expelled. This began a long period of suffering for the Church. Chinese bishops and priests, such as Bishop Gong Pinmei and Fr Beida Chang, were imprisoned for refusing to cut their ties with Rome, and China’s Church divided into two communities, the so-called “underground church”, faithful to the Vatican, and the “aboveground church”, which opted to operate under state control.
After the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, the situation of the Church has steadily improved, though tensions between these two communities persist, and Sino-Vatican relations remain tenuous.
While the churches, schools, orphanages and hospitals that grew out of the post-imperial “Golden Age” largely disappeared, China’s Catholic Church did not suffer in numbers. In 1949, China had roughly four million Christians, but today that number has risen to between 40 and 90 million. After materialism, Christianity is conceivably the fastest growing phenomenon in China, and this is perhaps why the government has increased its efforts to check the tide of religious fervour, often with severe tactics such as the recent wave of church cross removals.
The situation for Catholics in China remains difficult, and during a recent general audience on March 15, a group of Chinese pilgrims in Rome broke protocol and approached the Holy Father on their knees, crying bitterly. Pope Francis told the Swiss Guard to allow them to come forward, where he and the Chinese Catholics shared a moving encounter. After so long an era of forced separation between China’s Catholics and their spiritual father in Rome, this was an opportunity fraught with deep emotion, and what I hear often when I visit China is how fervently Chinese Catholics desire the Holy Father to visit their native soil, and finally begin an era of healing in a burdened Church, alive with the faith of the Apostles.
Anthony E Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University, US
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