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What it’s like to attend the Latin Mass in China

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The liturgy may be universal, but the congregation had a very different way of responding to it

When work has me out of town, I like to drop in on a daily Mass. There are, of course, the spiritual benefits of assisting at the Holy Sacrifice, but I enjoy it as a kind of anthropological exercise as well, enabling me to see how the practice of the Universal Church takes on the character of different cities and cultures, and – I will admit – to judge how the liturgical life of each place measures up against the standards I carry in my head.

When, not long ago, I found myself rather suddenly on a business trip in Beijing, I was glad to learn that there was a Mass at the cathedral which I might attend at 6am before my meetings on Monday. And I was all the more pleased to learn that this first Mass of the day was a Latin Mass. It seemed an opportunity not to be missed, and so I resolved to rise early (not difficult, given the jet lag) and see for myself what form traditional liturgy might take in the People’s Republic.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is directly next to the Xuanwumen subway station, named for the site of the Xuanwu Gate that had stood there for 500 years before disappearing, with so many other symbols of the old China, in Maoist modernisation efforts in the 1960s. During the Ming Dynasty, the great Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci was granted a home and chapel just outside the Xuanwu Gate, and the present church descends, through many reconstructions and renovations, from that first foothold of the Catholic faith in the imperial capital.

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A large gilded statue of Ricci, paired with one of his confrères, St Francis Xavier, greeted me at the gates of the cathedral compound, along with a sign informing me that the Beijing offices of the Patriotic Catholic Association could be found within. By the time I crossed through a couple of courtyards into the church itself, the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar had already begun.

In the sanctuary, everything was as it might have been anywhere else on earth, as the priest and his acolytes moved through the choreography of the Mass. In the pews, however, the congregation were occupied not by private prayer or by thumbing through missals, but by loudly singing hymns to Christ and his Mother, in tones that had nothing about them of chant or of Western music, but might not have been out of place in a Buddhist temple.

The congregation were attending to the Mass – they stood for the Gospel and the Last Gospel; some went up to take Communion at the proper time – but the hymns were never interrupted, not even for the final blessing.

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My own prayers were interrupted by a ragged member of the congregation who greeted me in English as a brother, and pressed on me a CV attesting to his education – it seemed he was looking for work as a language teacher. Had it not been during the canon of the Mass, this man’s story would surely have been worth hearing, but I waved him off and returned to my own devotions.

Above the altar hung an amateurish painting of the Immaculate Conception, flanked by two banners of calligraphy in the traditional Chinese manner: “O Mary conceived without original sin, / pray for us who have recourse to thee.” Here, in a distant city, surrounded by foreign trappings, was my own tradition – however much I stood out among that congregation of local Catholics, I felt solidly at home.

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A few days later, I was in a New Jersey suburb for the Thanksgiving holiday. If there is anywhere on earth I should feel at home, it ought to­ be here, in my parents’ house, at leisure, among my Catholic family. And there were no obvious signs of discord, none of the arguments about politics or religion that feature so prominently in commentary about Thanksgiving dinner. But I sometimes reflect that I have moved into a moral and intellectual world different from that in which I was raised. In practising the faith, in seeking to adhere to the teachings of the Church and steep myself in her traditions, I might think I am participating in my own heritage. But that’s a kind of wishful thinking.

The American Catholicism of my childhood was a tradition of living respectably in one’s suburban community, of voting pro-life, and of generous and enthusiastic charitable work. It taught me much that was good. But my experience of the faith today – with its emphasis on liturgical prayer, on medieval and patristic arguments, on interior holiness – could not have been acquired in such an environment. This changed experience comes rather from study, from seeking out the company of like-minded friends, from deliberate and as it were artificial cultivation of ancient devotions and practices.

At a Low Mass in China I can feel at home, telling myself that I am surrounded by my ancient Catholic tradition – only because I have begun to be a stranger to the American Catholic tradition in which I was raised.

Kevin Gallagher writes from New York