An early morning walk took me to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. I arrived in time for the 6:00 AM Traditional Latin Mass. There were many already there, perhaps 200 souls, praying before Mass or in lines for Confession. The quiet and reverence before the Blessed Sacrament impressed itself upon me. It was a weekday, all were here because they wanted to be here. The priest made his way to the altar and the familiar Latin prayers began, they were as they have been for centuries in China. They were as they have been since I was an altar boy in the 1950’s.
I would come back to the Cathedral several times during my stay in Beijing. I would visit the shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes just to the left of the main entrance and watch the passersby as they stopped and said a prayer or took pictures. There was again the sense of reverence and an abiding tranquility.
Across from the entrance and the shrine was a Catholic bookstore. The usual items were there – Rosaries, statues, pictures, and books. Many of the titles were familiar. This was no foreign place for me.
Just walking distance away from the Cathedral is Tiananmen Square. For many years I have wanted to visit this place and view the amazing sights within the Forbidden City. So, on this day I did just that. I had studied China closely since 1967 and had the opportunity to learn the language. In some ways our histories have been intertwined. The Peoples Republic of China and I were born on the same year. My earliest memories were of my older brother in the Korean Conflict and the surge of Chinese troops that threatened him there. My father had spent many months in Taiwan and he would tell me stories about the Chinese people. Now, I was finally at the very heart of all that I had been studying. What I saw around me was not foreign to me.
At the Cathedral, the evening Mass was in the Novus Ordo. Now the pews were filled and it was standing room only. Although I could understand the Chinese, it was only with greater effort. I must confess, the Chinese words along with American written Glory and Praise hymns was truly distracting. Nevertheless, the words of the Gospel and the recounting of Jesus’ words along the way to Immaus, especially the recognition of Jesus in the breaking of the bread, were just as poignant in Chinese as in English. Those beside me showed it in their faces – “Were not our hearts burning within us …”?
There came a moment, the Sign of Peace, as those around me shared in word and gesture, I saw the other side of my story – and all the time it was within “walking distance.” Did this American know about our lifelong persecution? Does he know that this is the “Chines Patriotic Catholic Association” and that the real heart of the Church in China is hidden underground? I tried my best, without saying so, to show them that I did know.
Inside that Cathedral, a priest will not speak of Rome or the Pope. In that bookstore, though many titles were familiar, there were many, many titles that were not there and are not allowed to be there. Since the year of our birth, the Roman Catholic Church in China has been under constant persecution. My study helps me from falling prey to illusions.
Just walking distance away from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, is Tiananmen Square. And there is a truth there that I see as I look down toward my feet. There, on that very ground in 1989, over one million people stood for freedom. Perhaps 300 or more died where I was standing. When you look at China beware of propaganda. My study helps me from falling prey to illusions.
The Cathedral and Tiananmen Square are just walking distance apart. Yet, in reality they are not even a few steps between them. The Chinese government has taken over the visible Church – and it has made martyrs. Those people in the pew beside me are walking martyrs. Their every Mass is monitored, their movements are watched, their futures are limited by their simple belief in God.
If there are lessons to be taken from historical relations between the Church and the State, they should be heeded. If Henry VIII could take the entire Church in England with him, save Catholic heroes like St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, and if China can openly subjugate the Church in China, then is it impossible to believe that the same could not happen closer to home.
Look to the legal challenges that the Catholic Church is now encountering on questions of Life and Marriage. What is the freedom of religion we claim here in America, is it to be so easily trampled in the Affordable Health Care Act? Can we in the Church think that, even with our Constitutional rights, our freedom is secure?
Perhaps, it is time to wonder about Church involvement with the State. Federal grants, school aid, co-administration of charitable programs all come with strings attached and those can become the reins of control. How far apart are the abuse of governmental power and the Catholic Church in America? Are we still years and miles apart? Or have the ties in funding for social justice programs become somewhat stronger than we think or would want? Are the recent reports from the Lepanto Institute, Human Life International, and the Population Institute concerning the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to be lightly dismissed or are they meant to be a sign for us? (See CRS, PEPFAR, and the Cover-up.) My study helps me from falling prey to illusions.
It is just walking distance from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to Tiananmen Square. How far is it from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to Capitol Hill?