The Marian procession at the shrine of Our Lady of Sheshan in May 2011. (Photo supplied)
As Christians celebrate the Feast of Mary Help of Christians on May 24, Catholics are also marking the 13th day of prayer for the Church in China. Pope Benedict XVI established it on May 27, 2017, with his letter to Chinese Catholics. It was celebrated for the first time the following year when Pope Benedict composed a special prayer for Our Lady of Sheshan.
The shrine of Our Lady of Sheshan, not far from Shanghai and named after Mary Help of Christians, is the most popular shrine in China. It is on top of a hill and many faithful climb the hill on their knees, pausing on the 14 Stations of the Cross.
Unfortunately, since 2008, authorities have prevented many from accessing the shrine during the month of May. Pilgrims have declined to a few hundred.
In 2020, due to the pandemic, the Marian shrine was closed. And it remains closed this year despite a nearby golf club and playground being open to the public and visited by thousands of people. The pandemic has been used in mainland China and Hong Kong as a convenient excuse to eliminate or minimize the lives of Catholic communities.
The shrine has been a symbol of the lack of freedom of the Church in China. In the nearby seminary, Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai has been under house arrest for almost nine years. The 53-year-old bishop was arrested on July 7, 2012, the same evening of his ordination, for renouncing the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
The Diocese of Shanghai remains without a guide, and the bishop cannot communicate with his faithful. Political authorities have reduced Bishop Ma to a "presbyteral state," invalidating his episcopal ordination.
Religious politics is increasingly oppressive, leaving little hope for improvement
One can only imagine the solitude and isolation of the bishop. Perhaps he finds consolation with the thought that the shrine is just a few meters away. This is one of the most difficult times for Catholics in China in the last 40 years. Religious politics is increasingly oppressive, leaving little hope for improvement.
The trust of Chinese Catholics in Mary’s help does not diminish despite the difficulties. In fact, there were difficult moments in the past when Catholics experienced the protection of the Mother of God. And, honoring that, I would like to offer here a brief description of Marian devotion in China.
Our Lady of the Eastern Syrian Church
Christianity entered China in 635 AD thanks to the missionaries of the Eastern Syrian Church. Coming from Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the metropolitan seat of the Assyrian Church (near present-day Baghdad), they reached Xi'an, then the capital of China.
They began translating Christian texts into Chinese, just as Buddhist monks were translating the sutras of the Buddha's teaching into Chinese. The two faiths, Buddhist and Christian, met and interacted. Christianity took the name of "luminous teaching"; Chinese Buddhism came out with Guanyin, the popular goddess of mercy, which is somewhat similar, both from an iconographic and doctrinal point of view, to the figure of the Virgin Mary.
The Madonna of the Franciscans
Roman Catholicism arrived in Beijing in 1292 thanks to Franciscan missionary John of Montecorvino and other Franciscan missionaries who followed him. A portrait of Madonna with child, dated 1342, belongs to the Franciscan period. It was found with other Christian cultural objects in the city of Yangzhou. The Madonna was portrayed in Chinese style as accommodation was a “cultural imperative.”
The Madonna by Matteo Ricci
Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, father of Chinese Catholicism, in January 1601 entered the Forbidden City of Beijing. He presented 16 gifts to the Wanli emperor, including a copy of the image of Maria Salus Populi Romani, traditionally attributed to St. Luke. The Society of Jesus was particularly fond of this image, located in the Church of St. Maria Maggiore in Rome, due to the devotion of Ignatius of Loyola for it.
Ricci himself was very devoted to the Madonna. As a child, he had visited the shrine of the Holy House in Loreto, not far from Macerata (Italy). He published four sacred images, including a Madonna of Seville, which was later a model for other Chinese-style reproductions.
In 1619, nine years after Ricci's death, Portuguese missionary João da Rocha published in Nanjing The Method of the Rosary, a beautiful Chinese-style illustrated book that introduces the faithful to the 15 mysteries of Marian prayer.
In 1637, Giulio Aleni, a Jesuit missionary from Brescia, published 56 images in The Illustrated Life of the Lord of Heaven Incarnate, with many depictions of the Virgin Mary. The last woodcut of Aleni's illustrative sequence is particularly suggestive: the Chinese people witness the Coronation of the Virgin Mary, now part of the only universal church.
Luke Chen's Christian visual culture
After the unfortunate outcome of the Chinese rites controversy (1742), the path of cultural accommodation was abandoned. It was resumed in the twenties of the last century thanks to Celso Costantini, Pope Pius XI’s delegate to China.
He did much to promote the inculturation of Christianity in the country. He inspired the founding of a school for Chinese Christian art at Fujen University in Beijing. Luke Chen is the best-known artist who reproduced the sacred persons in Chinese style. Particularly famous are his Madonnas, which some perplexed Catholics thought looked too much like the Buddhist Guanyin.
The Chinese Madonna of the North Church of Beijing
Not all Catholics felt the need to have a Chinese Madonna to feed their devotion. The beautiful image of Mary Empress of China in the Northern Church in Beijing is an example of this. The oil painting by a contemporary artist from Hong Kong depicts Mary and the baby Jesus in colorful and luxurious imperial robes, dominated by yellow. Some Beijing Catholics expressed the opinion that Mary, not being Chinese, should not be artificially represented as Chinese.
Our Lady of Lourdes
The Catholic people of China love the Virgin Mary very much. Through Marian images, the faithful were able to affirm their distinctive identity and overcome difficult circumstances and tumultuous historical upheavals. The faith survived in the dark years of persecution thanks to some fundamental devotions: to the Sacred Heart, to Our Lady and to the pope.
The cult of Our Lady of Lourdes has spread widely thanks to the devotion by European missionaries, especially French ones, who were very numerous in China in the second half of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century.
There is no church in China that does not have a grotto or a statue remembering the apparitions of Lourdes. The devotion to Our Lady of Fatima also spread considerably.
Two images and shrines of Our Lady are most loved by Chinese Catholics. They are both dedicated to Mary Help of Christians as both shrines originated from Mary's intervention to protect Christians.
Donglu's story begins in 1900 during the Boxer revolt.
The Catholic village of Donglu, 40 kilometers from Baoding in the province of Hebei, was surrounded by thousands of rioters ready for a massacre. The 700 faithful and their priest invoked the Virgin Mary, certain that their death was imminent.
The Catholic chronicles then narrate that a woman surrounded by light appeared, making the rebels withdraw. A church was built to thank the Virgin Mary for her protection. An image of the Dowager Empress Cixi in imperial dress was used as a model to portray the Madonna and Child.
In 1924, the bishops of China, gathered in the Synod of Shanghai, established Donglu Church as a shrine. The image and the church became a popular pilgrimage destination. In 1932, Pius XI approved the cult and the shrine. Destroyed by the Japanese in 1941, the shrine was rebuilt and enlarged between 1989 and 1992 and dedicated to Mary Help of Christians.
Thousands of faithful, including four bishops and 100 priests, reported that on May 23, 1995, on the eve of the Feast of Mary Help of Christians, an extraordinary movement of the sun took place at the Donglu shrine. The reported event would make people think of the “miracle of the sun” in Fatima on Oct. 13, 1917.
Since then, security authorities have prevented the faithful from making a pilgrimage to Donglu. The devotion of the people sometimes managed to evade the restrictive measures, and many went to the shrine, which is located in an area where underground Catholic communities are strong.
Our Lady of Sheshan
The story of Our Lady of Sheshan begins in 1863 with the purchase by the French Jesuits of the hill of Sheshan. On March 1, 1868, the bishop of Shanghai, Adrien Languillat, consecrated the chapel and blessed the image of Our Lady Help of Christians, modeled after Our Lady of Victory in Paris.
In September 1870, the bloody revolt of the Tai Ping Army arrived in Shanghai and the Catholic community was in grave danger. The superior of the Chinese Jesuit community, Father Gu Zhensheng, vowed to build a Marian church on top of Sheshan Hill if the Virgin Mary would protect them. And so it happened. On May 24, 1871, in the presence of thousands of faithful, the new church was initiated. It was consecrated in 1873.
The church, 56 meters long, 25 meters wide and 17 meters high with a 38-meter bell tower, was built thanks to the generosity of Catholics. It is considered the first Marian basilica in East Asia. Our Lady of Sheshan became the protector of the Shanghai church. In 1874, Pius IX granted indulgence to pilgrims who visit the shrine during the month of May. In 1894, a second Marian church was built halfway up the hill.
In 1924, papal delegate Celso Costantini convened the first Chinese synod in Shanghai. A painting of the Mother of God with child was commissioned and was placed in the shrine. This image continues to be highly revered, enshrined atop the basilica’s main high altar. It was then that the annual pilgrimages began, making it the most important Catholic pilgrimage destination in China.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the original statue was destroyed. In April 2000, Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian commissioned a new statue: the standing Virgin Mary raises the baby Jesus above her head with her arms outstretched in a cross gesture. The dragon, with a trident tail, is crumpled by the Virgin Mary’s feet.
The May 24 prayers by Catholics in China and from all around the world are ideally conveyed to this shrine.