The Joys of China

Author: Mark Miravalle


The Joys of China

Part 1

The Smiles of a Suffering Church Revealed

By Mark Miravalle


To speak of joy within a Church consistently persecuted by the most powerful Communist government in the world seems like flippancy, or worse, a contradiction.

It is a mystery innately connected to the heart of Christianity — a religion which holds up as its climactic victory the tortuous death of its savior God-man on a cross, two beams of wood nailed together by the sins of each living human being, my sins and your sins. And yet, the full truth must be told, and that includes the full truth about the Catholic Church in China: a people typically denied their fundamental human rights and religious freedoms, but a Christian people triumphant in heart and in joy.

As soon as I entered a major Chinese airport recently, as a follow-up visit after the publication of my book "The Seven Sorrows of China," and handed off a suitcase full of smuggled medical supplies to some guardian angels from the West who take care of God's precious — and China's most neglected — children, I was hurried away to a vehicle by an excited Catholic priest who was a native Chinese teaching in a seminary in a neighboring country.

As we drove away from the airport, the Chinese priest was quick to inform me that he had read my previous book, "The Seven Sorrows of China," and, while complimentary and confirming of the value and accuracy of the text from an inside perspective, he was also adamant in stating that the book was in one way incomplete. “It is a beautiful book and has many good things,” he noted, “but now I challenge you to write something on the ‘Joyful Mysteries of China.’ If you give only the sorrowful side, it will not encourage the people. Jesus had the sorrows of his passion, but also his joys and glories. You must also write about the victories that are happening in the Church in China right now.”

Another side

I wondered what precisely he meant. The first book, which I had not planned before arriving in China, was from my journal of my previous visit to this land. It recounted intense experiences of tragic day-by-day realities for the Chinese people and the Chinese Church. I had recorded incidents such as the mandatory cremation of a neglected child who died after having been rejected by a federal Chinese orphanage and then cared for and loved by a private foreign orphanage, and my meetings with women who had to flee from government and family in order to have a child against the abortion policies of state and clan. I had interviewed a saintly underground Chinese bishop under house arrest following 20 plus years of imprisonment and house arrests, and learned about the documentable government persecutions of bishops, priests, and faithful who refuse to cooperate in any way with the government and its official “patriotic” church. I had related the story of an inspiring region where Catholic-style solidarity enabled a heroic Catholic community to effectually ward off the government’s one-child policy in their families of four, five, six, and even eight children.

What, then, was this Chinese Catholic priest asking of me? In the "Seven Sorrows" book, I was not in any way downplaying the heroic witness of Chinese Catholics. Quite the contrary. In fact, I had been advised by certain Catholic watchdog organizations to avoid granting too many details about the powerful spiritual victories of the humble Chinese Church, lest it result in a new wave of persecutions by the regional religious affairs bureaus of the central Beijing government. And yet, the residual taste in this priest’s mouth after reading "Seven Sorrows," whether justified or not, was that it did not adequately pay homage to the joys, the victories, the growth and development of the Catholic Church in China taking place in spite of the severe persecutions.

Nonetheless, the priest’s conviction about the importance of witnessing to the Gospel joy of Jesus and the contemporary joys of Chinese Catholics convicted me. What would be the harm in testifying to just a sample of the positive surges coming forth from the people of God in that land, if described prudently and without risk to their ongoing safety and success. Joy in an atmosphere of sorrow, persecution, and human despair. Is this not the paradoxical formula for some of the greatest moments in the Church’s history? And this without in any way minimizing the ongoing nationwide violation of basic human and religious rights by a totalitarian government that would not, or could not, admit that each human person in its country possesses an inherent, God-given dignity which transcends politics and national boundaries, including its unborn persons and its female persons. What the government could not see is that China should exist for the good of the person. The person does not exist for the good of China.

I would like to introduce you to two living witnesses to the joy of the Church in China, which thrives amid great sufferings. These two joyful faces are from opposite ends of the ecclesiastical spectrum, but each in his own way manifests through heroic virtue the Face of Jesus and his Body as it is exists in China. Theirs is a Church developing, growing, and, paradoxically, “smiling” as it “makes up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, for the sake of his Body, which is the Church” (Col. 1:24).

[Parts 2 and 3 of this article will appear Monday and Tuesday]

Part 2 Bishop "O" Fosters Church-State Dialogue

By Mark Miravalle


We now enter the company of a man of remarkable humility who perseveres under the most delicate of ecclesio-political situations. He is the Catholic bishop of a diocese in China that I must refrain from naming.

As with the "Seven Sorrows" text, we here must hold back any specifics that could in any way endanger our Chinese Catholic brothers and sisters. Let us call him Bishop “O” for “open” or above-ground church.

This particular bishop was appointed by the Vatican and is in complete conformity with and obedience to the Holy Father (Pope Benedict’s pictures are present throughout his diocesan offices, his seminaries, and even the home of his elderly parents). He is also registered with the government in what they designate as the “Catholic Patriotic Church.” Pope Benedict’s 2007 Letter to the Chinese Church and People made clear that Catholic bishops appointed by Rome could also register with the Patriotic Church Association without any intrinsic violation to the allegiance and fidelity to the Holy Father and the Holy See. This bishop has done just that. And in striving to hold the extremely difficult and sensitive balance between complete doctrinal orthodoxy and papal loyalty on the one hand, and cooperating (without moral compromise) with local government authorities on secondary levels of dialogue and social programs on the other, this clever but innocent shepherd has been able to provide his flock with the spiritual access and social safety which is leading to thousands of adult baptisms throughout his diocese each year.

Upon our arrival, we were immediately introduced to this delicate and sometimes confusing balance when we met with the local county authority and officers of his religious affairs bureau, in the official’s government conference meeting room. We were presented to them as the bishop’s foreign guests.

There was no doubt about who were the authorities and who were the guests, as the government official presided with obvious authority from the other side of the expansive meeting table separating our small group of foreigners from his side, where the government officials sat. We were given a rather formal presentation of the commerce and industrial achievements of the region, along with a brief reference to historical and cultural highpoints. As the presentation began, we were somewhat concerned to see a television camera enter the room. We were being filmed for who knows what end.

At this first encounter, the head official referred to the bishop with obvious respect in word and in manner. This puzzled us, because it seemed out of place in light of the two radically opposing ideologies that the official and bishop represent.

After the presentation, we were taken to various plants of industry to observe firsthand the successful industries of the region, which operate in collaboration with foreign countries. Apart from initial discomfort on both sides of the group, composed of both officials and visitors, (and without applause from the foreigners regarding the ethical concerns of various forms of outsourcing for both China and the foreign countries), a mood of growing familiarity grew between us. We returned to the government building, where, to our surprise, the head official had prepared a formal lunch reception for the guests of the bishop.

Toasts all around

During the meal, rather amazing events unfolded. The head official toasted the bishop, and offered a brief oration on the respect of the bishop by the people of his region. Everyone then drank to this. Local custom called for all to down a small shot glass of what they referred to as "white wine," which was in fact a hard alcohol similar to a form of grappa, the alcohol strength of which could probably propel several large trucks. Then the religious affairs officer (responsible, keep in mind, for the supervision and oftentimes suppression of unapproved religious activity in the county) stood up, proposed another toast to the bishop, and publicly witnessed to the fact that he had begun attending Mass at the bishop’s cathedral on Sundays, and that the bishop personally was teaching him how to pray! All drink to this.

By the end of the meal, four government officials have toasted the bishop and his Roman Catholic guests, and have gone around the table and individually exchanged toasts and corresponding shots of Chinese moonshine with each Catholic guest present. After the first two shots, refilled immediately following each toast by the many female waitresses, I discretely poured my liquor into my soup bowl and in turn filled it with water in order to maintain custom and consciousness at this remarkable meal.

At this point, you may have circling in your mind certain questions that I had in mine as all this was taking place. Wait a minute! Aren’t these the bad guys? Aren’t these the Communist party members who are implementing the Beijing policies of one child per family, forced abortion, and general persecution of the Church? Should we be cooperating with these guys and the government they represent? The temptation to pre-judge and to spontaneously condemn was great.

The answer: "Shi he bu shi." Yes and No.

As the bishop commented at one point, "There is a saying here that each diocese in China is like living in its own country." Every diocese in China has its own unique situation in relation to the local government. While it can be said that most dioceses experience consistent persecution from the local government as a logical application of the Beijing central government policies against religious freedom and personal/family dignity, (however slightly they may be improving on the federal level), nonetheless there are exceptions where local officials have providentially seen the social good effected by the Catholic Church's presence in the region, and have decided to grant increased, though still restricted, liberty and even some form of respect to the Catholic presence in their county.

Selling out?

Is this a case of inordinate cooperation with an evil authority? In what way is the bishop's approach different from an unacceptable form of moral cooperation with unjust authority — a cooperation embodying a consequentialist, the-end-justifies-the-means, type of activity, which St. Paul and the Church rightly condemn?

As St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, we must always make key distinctions regarding matters of faith and morals. The bishop is not offering any proximate moral cooperation to anything intrinsically evil that may be enacted by the local government and its officers of religious oversight. Rather, he is cooperating in areas of dialogue between state and Church, coupled with encouraging the solutions to local social problems and legitimate civil advancements for the county, and this has earned the local authorities' trust of the bishop — a trust which has led to unique opportunities for previously underground Catholics to worship in public and for other Chinese of the area to be exposed to the wonders of Catholic mystery and beauty, for the salvation of their families and friends.

Without any condoning of the grave violations of personal and religious rights, which continue and must be responded to spiritually and politically for the sake of all our Chinese brothers and sisters on both federal and local governmental levels, the Holy Spirit appears to be powerfully and discretely guiding this bishop (and perhaps others like him) to find the chink in the Dragon's armor, and to allow the saving blood and water from the pierced side of Christ to flow through that chink and into the hearts of the people of his region.

Clearly, the level of respect and even praise offered by the local government for this particular bishop must be seen as exceptionally rare in China, particularly in light of this bishop's refusal of any moral compromise of Church teaching or practice. But this bishop has used the local government's providential honoring of his person and role to full advantage for the Chinese people of God in his diocese.

The array of spiritual fruits emanating from this diocese is nothing short of inspiring. Vocations are strongly on the rise. We visited a minor seminary with nearly 100 young men discerning the priesthood. An order of religious sisters numbered more than 70, with the vast majority younger than 40 years of age, and resplendent with smiling faces and joyful strides in their walk. These sisters as well as other religious of the diocese participate in medical outreach programs and educational services to the people of the region.

Several parishes have had more than 100 adults enter the Catholic faith at Easter, and the bishop has promised his presence at the Christmas and Easter celebrations of parishes with the greatest number of catechumens becoming baptized. The bishop also has an intense program of Catholic evangelization, where catechists are trained to go out two by two, door to door, following the Gospel instruction of the Lord with literal simplicity and profundity. And this, with the permission of the local Communist authorities!

How many dioceses in the Western world, free from any form of Communist domination or harassment, can boast this quantity and quality of ecclesial fruits?

Jesus tells us with Gospel certainty that "each tree is known by its own fruit" (Lk 6:44). He also tells us that the Spirit blows where he wills (cf. Jn 3:8). Although the situation is not typical of most Chinese dioceses, and the bishop's successes impossible without moral compromise in certain other dioceses, he is, through his humble transparency, leading thousands to the Lord and to the Catholic Church. Joy is also a fruit of the Spirit. This man, in the midst his extraordinary pressures and political tight roping, wears the face of the joyful Christ.

Part 3 Bishop "U" Builds Church From Prison

By Mark Miravalle


The second joyful face of the Chinese Church is usually a hidden face. Hidden behind walls, behind bars, behind police blockades. He is an underground bishop, and his great offering to the Church in China is his "white" martyrdom, and what seems at times to be his approaching "red" or bloody martyrdom.

Let us call him Bishop "U" for "underground," in contrast to the aforementioned Bishop "O" for "open" or above-ground church registered with the government.

In the specific case of Bishop "U" and his relation to the local government, registering with the Patriotic Association would mean direct moral compromise for him and for his people. This is because in his region it would be advancing an agenda that is counter to the teachings of the Church and independent from the Roman Pontiff. Without getting into imprudent detail, suffice it to say that this bishop has no choice but to witness to his Catholic faith and his unconditional loyalty to the Holy Father. This he has done unfailingly throughout repeated persecutions that have cost more than 20 years of his life spent in prison or detainment and separation from his flock, for the simple reason that he will not say "yes" to Beijing and "no" to Christ.

We traveled to his diocese by train, a journey of several hours outside a major city. Arriving at a rail terminal, we were met by a young man dressed with a rather loud tie, and similarly lively and somewhat uncoordinated clothing, something like what might be worn by a country dweller in his first outing to a major city. We were gathered into two cars and drove from station en route to a more rural setting. We soon learned that the young gentleman who met us is Fr. "X," a professor in the underground seminary.

After approximately an hour's car ride, we turned off onto a dirt road, and arrived at a small complex of humble residential structures, the entrance of which was one small building with two large doors, prohibiting any view of what lay inside. We were led through them into a small courtyard, and from there to a reception room of modest appearance.

At this point, numerous young men entered the room. Fr. "X" introduced us to two other priests, Fr. "L" and Fr. "F," and then to the remainder of the men, the seminarians. When asked whether this had been the seminary location for an extended time, Fr. "X" replied that in past years the seminary had stayed in one location for an entire year, but in recent years its location had to be changed several times a year. I recalled that during my previous visit to this region, we had passed an old abandoned brick structure half in ruins and surrounded by a deserted set of farm buildings, and the underground religious with us had said, "That's our seminary for the time being."

Ordained in the dark

An account of a recent ordination also helps to give flesh to the reality of what a vocation for the underground Church means. A certain seminarian, who actually had temporary access to partial, out of country theological instruction, had been ready for ordination for some time, but he had to await the release of his bishop from prison. Finally, the day came, and the seminarian was alerted to be prepared at any time for the call to come to a specific location for the ordination. Weeks passed, but still no call. Friends from his previous seminary had been writing for months, asking, "When is the date of your ordination?" The humble seminarian responded simply, "I do not know."

Finally, the call came. The seminarian was instructed to go to a certain building, to enter the basement in the dark and to remain until the bishop arrived. The seminarian arrived early in the morning and waited and waited, and still no bishop. Finally at day's end, the seminarian heard the upstairs door open, and someone walking down the steps. It was the bishop, accompanied by one other priest. And there, in the dark, in the basement, without any family members, friends, or even brother clergy save one, the bishop enacted the sacred rite, which transformed the seminarian into another Christ.

Weeks later, the newly ordained priest received correspondence from his previous seminary brethren. Upon hearing that he had indeed been ordained, they asked with jubilation for the young priest to send pictures of the ceremony and the subsequent celebration. But there was no public ceremony, celebration, community laud. The priest went to a designated spot and offered his first Mass the next day in service of Christ and in service of his people. His fellow seminarians in another land just did not understand. So, too, we often do not understand what it means to be a priest of the underground Church in China.

Initially cautious about the presence of foreigners, understandably so, the priests and seminarians soon warmed up during our theological and spiritual discussions. By the end of our stay together, we felt a union of mind, heart, and trust that in other circumstances might have taken years to develop. We ended by exchanging mutual accounts of admiration for Bishop "U," along with the promise to return for future collaborative efforts for the Church in this diocese.

We were told by one his religious daughters that the bishop's superhuman endurance of the never-ending persecution derives from his phenomenal prayer life. Rising early in the morning, he typically makes three holy hours a day (whenever, of course, he has access to the Blessed Sacrament and Mass — typically not granted him during his imprisonment periods), the offering of Mass, the praying of the divine office, coupled with several rosaries prayed throughout the day. He is ever beloved by his clergy, religious and people, and they would willingly offer their lives for his protection. Some of his clergy have indeed risked their lives to do so.


His serenity can only come from another world. One witness attested to the fact that even during an unexpected visit by police and high officials from the persecuting religious affairs bureau, Bishop "U" never lost his peace. During a brief sojourn of freedom when he returned to his people, witnesses state that, despite the frightening possibility that he would be immediately taken back to prison, he radiated a peace of heart with smile on his face that could only have come from a heavenly source.

We next encountered an individual who has been responsible for some extremely valuable publishing for the underground Church. A woman, full of charm, elegance, and the humility that rightly accompanies authentic Catholic culture, she uses the best and most discrete of her virtuous wiles to provide the underground Church with valuable publications for catechetical instruction and spiritual formation.

This woman, Miss "P," refused to take the slightest bit of credit for any of her gallant and daring undertakings. Her responses were limited simply to, "Thanks be to God. Our Lady provides for everything. It is all privilege to serve God. I am not worthy."

Upon mention of her repeated reference to the Blessed Mother and her obviously intimate devotion to her, Miss "P" responded: "Our Blessed Mother loves us very much. I always ask Ma li ya, Shengmu (Mary, Holy Mother) for help. I do perpetual novenas to her. She loves us very much."

Upon leaving this inspirational woman, I added to her vocation of Christian suffering by exposing her to my frightfully painful, though well-intended, Chinese farewell (which was kindly translated for me into Mandarin by a Chinese horticulture researcher who sat next to me on the plane flight over): "Women ai ni. Ni yong yaan zai wode xin Li, he zai Yesu he Ma li ya de xin Li. Xie xie nin!" (We love you. You will remain deeply in our hearts, and in the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, forever. Thank you!).

All spiritual fruits growing and flowing from this region should rightly be recognized as being watered in mystical connection with the chief shepherd-victim soul of this diocese. As episcopal high priest, Bishop "U" imitates the Eternal High Priest in offering the two greatest sacrifices for his people — the offering of the Mass and the offering of his life. The fruit of blood and water are apparent amidst the most intense of governmental persecution.

As part of our small sacrifice within this oriental Church of sacrifice, we were deprived of direct experience of the smiling face of Bishop "U," due to his ongoing exile from his people at the hands of the religious affairs bureau and the local authority of government officials. His suffering witness remains an inspiration beyond words.

Pointless persecution?

The less experienced or less wise voices of the "open" Church might be tempted to conclude that the suffering of Bishop "U" is simply the avoidable effect of an old school, elderly bishop from past regimes, who stubbornly refuses to follow through with the pro forma registration with the Patriotic Association, where some secondary cooperation with the government would simply alleviate this pointless persecution. They would be grossly misjudging the particular situation in the region of Bishop "U," where cooperation in his situation would be tantamount to advocating and embodying an ecclesio-political movement independent of Rome and proximate to the state. A man, a bishop, fire-tried with a quarter-century of imprisonment and harassment could never acquiescence to this concession of Christian conscience.

The quintessential call of Benedict XVI in his letter to the Chinese Church is unity. Unity.

This is why it is imperative that Chinese Catholics, through God's grace of forgiveness and healing, must let go of the hurt of past confusions, defections, and potential betrayals, and move on to the great task ahead of them, united as one Church under one Holy Father.

Let those in the "open Church," who are able to cooperate with local authorities without moral compromise to Rome and its teachings, continue to do so for the authentic advancement of the Church. Let them avoid any judgment of their "underground" brothers and sisters who, due to substantially different circumstances, cannot. Let them be united in heart with their "underground" brothers and sisters.

Let those of the "underground Church," who properly refuse to cooperate with intrinsic rejection of papal authority and Catholic life, continue to do so for the advancement of the Church. Let them avoid any judgment of their "open" Church brothers and sisters who, due to substantially different circumstances, can cooperate with local authorities for the Church's good. Let them be united in heart with their "open" Church brothers and sisters, faithful to Rome.

Only in this way, united in trust and truth, firmly upon the rock of Peter and obedient to his directives, can the small but unswerving Catholic Church in China reflect the Christian joy radiating from the faces of both Bishop "O" and Bishop "U," historical heroes leading the charge on two critical fronts, one active, the other coredemptive — and at the same time accomplish the evangelical mission given it by the Founder himself, to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19).

* * *

Mark Miravalle is a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of more than a dozen books on Mariology, and editor of "Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons," he wrote "The Seven Sorrows of China" in 2007. He is married and has eight children.

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