Migrant priests, middle-class converts: Beijing’s oldest Catholic cathedral

Beijing’s oldest Catholic cathedral, in Xuanwumen, was destroyed during the boxer uprising but and was rebuilt in its present Romanesque form in 1904. It’s now surrounded by office buildings and stands opposite a large luxury shopping mall, where the jewelry counters seemed eerily short of customers when I visited this Tuesday.

Sister Ying Mulan (英木兰), or Sister Theresa according to the name she chose on becoming a nun (after, she assured me, the French Saint Thérèse, rather than her more recent Calcutta-based namesake), works at the Outside affairs office (外事办) of the cathedral.  I wanted to find out more about the current state of the Catholic church in Beijing, particularly following several recent reports China/Catholic goings on in the press. After handing me the obligatory paper cup filled with boiling water, she explained her views on:

Priest recruitment.
Sister Theresa was keen to emphasize that the Chinese clergy ‘has grown from almost nothing’ since the cultural revolution, when priests, bishops and other members of the clergy were persecuted and often sent to labor camps (although at least one priest was retained at the Xuanwumen cathedral to provide Catholic masses for foreign diplomats in Beijing). But recruiting new priests is tough, she admitted, mainly due to the one child policy. Because of the policy, parents are reluctant to support their son’s decision to become a priest. ‘If your son becomes a priest, there won’t be a next generation of the family’ she said (Catholic priests are not permitted to marry). Most of the current priest intake comes from poorer countryside areas of China, where the one-child policy is less strictly enforced, she said, and priests are young, in her estimation ‘mostly under 40’.

Lack of Bishops.
The chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association said this week that 44 out of 97 Catholic dioceses in China lack a bishop, and I wanted to find out more about the shortage. Sister Theresa didn’t confirm the total number of dioceses lacking Bishops, saying only that it was ‘more than 30’. But she repeated the view that the shortage is not due to any disagreement between the Vatican and Chinese Communist Party. Instead, the main reason for the lack is a scarcity of experienced priests. To become a Bishop a priest needs to be over 35, to have worked as a priest for at least 5 years, and to have ‘done well’ in the position, as she put it. According to Sister Theresa, there just aren’t enough experienced priests in China who meet these conditions.

Government Support for Churches.
The Beijing diocese built two new churches in Haidian district last year, both with local government assistance. Help from the government comes in two forms. Most importantly, the government helps to recover land originally owned by the Church before the revolution ‘if we couldn’t get land in that way, there’s no way we could afford to buy it, we’re not as rich as the Church in your country’ Sister Theresa explained. Second, the government actually provides cash to fund the church buildings. ‘Even the new extension to the Cathedral here in Xuanwumen got funded by the Government’ she added.

Recent Vatican-CCP talks in Burgundy

‘I haven’t heard about that at all’, Sister Theresa said.

New converts and baptisms.
The number of Catholics in Beijing is increasing, and the city’s churches are often filled well over their capacity. I asked about recent trends in the kinds of people being baptized. In Sister Theresa’s view, new entrants to the church are ‘getting younger in age, and richer in terms of social class’, with more and more white-collar converts. 200 new converts will be baptized as during the Easter mass at the Cathedral this weekend, and I hope to be there to take a look.

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