ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong
Updated: September 10, 2019 06:03 AM GMT
This 2015 file photo shows a worshipper holds rosary beads after a service celebrating the Feast of the Ascension at the "underground" Zhongxin Bridge Catholic Church in Tianjin. (Photo by Greg BAKER/AFP)
Zhao, an underground church member in northeast China, is over 70 years old and has difficulty walking. To attend Mass, she sometimes has to get up very early and leave home without breakfast to catch three buses to reach the gathering point.
"When I get up, I simply grab some food and eat on the way. If I finish eating before going out, I’ll be late. If I eat only after Mass, I would faint from hunger," Zhao told ucanews.com.
This does not stop her from going to Mass, however. She looks around for new gathering points and encourages other church members to go with her to receive sacraments.
"The conditions are difficult but we can't do anything about it. The government doesn’t allow any party or individual to rent a house to the church for us to attend Mass," she said.
The church in Xintaizi town where Zhao used to attend Mass was sealed off by the Chinese government before last Christmas as part of a clampdown that has caused many Catholics in Shenyang Diocese in Liaoning province to fear that its underground church will slowly disappear.
Several underground churches and gathering points have been sealed off, forcing many church members to trudge a long distance at a moment's notice to attend Mass elsewhere.
Church member Paul Jia told ucanews.com that a new church was built in Xintaizi more than a decade ago. With nearly 1,000 members, faith activities were held regularly until the church was sealed off before last Christmas.
"There was no news or any sign that it would happen, so nothing in the church could be brought out. Now without a stable place, church members go to Mass everywhere," he said.
Paul said the priest in Xintaizi also serves Xiaoheyan’s church, which was also sealed off at the same time. A leased house in Tiexi was used as a gathering point for more than 10 years, but it has had the same fate and its faithful have had to look elsewhere.
The current gathering points are in the suburbs of Shenyang where traffic is heavy. Some have no water and electricity, so Mass takes place by simply laying a table and lighting a candle, Paul said.
Easy to be noticed
Li, another underground church member, said the faithful are given short notice when a priest goes to a church member’s home to celebrate Mass.
She explained that some gathering points were targeted by the government because many people went there. "We have to use small places. We cannot accommodate many people as it is easy to be noticed," she said
Zhao recalled when the underground church was formed in Shenyang, the diocese began to split into open and underground communities that date back to Bishop Xu Zhenjiang’s time.
The late Bishop Xu, who was consecrated as the official bishop of Liaoning in 1981, was one of the founding members of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA).
Zhao said that even though Bishop Xu got married during the Cultural Revolution and had children, he still celebrated Mass. Some church members could not accept such a shepherd and turned to the underground church.
"We can't recognize a married person with child as a priest, and he even became a bishop. This goes against the Church's doctrine and violates the canon," she said.
Li recalled with emotion that an underground bishop near death once told her: "Even if persecution is coming, don't go to the CPCA. I have never been there."
Regarding the underground church’s future, Li said: "It seems that it can't be completely recovered. Persecution has come. The time of getting beheaded has come, but the word of God doesn't work and nobody comes forward anymore."
Zhao also feels powerless, saying it’s too hard to evangelize now.
“Secularization is also so serious that everyone is busy making money and very few people are concerned about faith. I discuss faith with people of the same age in my neighborhood. They all believe that faith is useless and having plenty to eat and drink is good enough,” she said.
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