Catholics pray at Our Lady of Sheshan Basilica Catholic church in Shanghai on May 24, 2013. (Photo: AFP)
When Pope Benedict XVI instituted the Day of Prayer for Catholics in China in 2007, Aloysius Jin Luxian was bishop of Shanghai. That year, an article in The Atlantic monthly described Bishop Jin as "arguably the most influential and controversial figure in Chinese Catholicism of the last 50 years."
Fast forward 16 years. Bishop Jin has died, and Shanghai Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin is still under house arrest since 2012 for publicly quitting the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Then, in April of this year, Chinese authorities transferred Bishop Joseph Shen Bin of Haimen to Shanghai, apparently in violation of a Vatican-China agreement on the appointment of bishops.
Since he took office 10 years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping has worked to centralize power around himself, said Karrie J. Koesel, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Xi has worked for "greater control over civil society," which includes religion, Koesel told OSV News.
Joel Hodge, senior lecturer in the School of Theology at Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, told OSV News that "basic rights of communication and association -- which many outside of China take for granted -- have been subject to increasing restriction nationally."
Pope Francis continues to ask for prayers for Chinese Catholics each May 24, the feasts of Mary, Help of Christians and the popular Our Lady of Sheshan. One U.S. priest familiar with the situation in China said "with the surveillance, with the controls, with the clamps being put on people," it reminds him of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
The priest, who asked that his name not be used for fear of causing trouble for friends in China, noted that in some dioceses, children under 18 cannot attend church. "There's cameras everywhere," the priest said.
He said it is hard for foreign Catholics to go in and out of China, and Chinese Catholics need prayers that they "can stick together and that their faith can take deep root." The faith of many Catholics today was transmitted to them by their grandparents during the Cultural Revolution and afterward, he said, adding, "The circumstances today, I think, are similar."
In testimony before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in Washington last September, Koesel spoke of how the Chinese government uses surveillance to collect information on religious believers.
"It tracks phone apps that transmit information on user activity and location; it utilizes facial recognition technology to follow movement and relies on an impressive array of CCTV cameras at temples, churches and mosques to keep tabs on attendance and the content of religious services," Koesel testified. She noted that religious associations, schools and monasteries must have a license for maintaining websites, and content must be approved by members of provincial religious affairs departments.
New technology "makes it just easier to monitor, to manage, to infiltrate," to track people's movements or listen in on cellphone conversations, she told OSV News. The general impression among religious communities in China is that "the state is listening."
This does not necessarily mean the government will interfere, she said, borrowing historian Perry Link's analogy of the anaconda in the chandelier. Everyone knows the snake is up there, and it might be moving slightly, but even if it does nothing, it creates fear. Because of the potential that government authorities "might step in," she said, people might self-censor.
Koesel noted that China -- like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea -- placed many restrictions on religion, but she said she was not sure she would agree that times were as bad as during the Cultural Revolution.
Catholic churches are open for business, and people can attend Mass publicly, which was not possible during the Cultural Revolution. Seminaries remain open, and people can enter the priesthood -- also not allowed during the Cultural Revolution. Churches have pictures of Pope Francis, who is publicly acknowledged during Mass.
In the early 1980s, Bishop Jin, who spent 18 years in a Chinese prison, made the decision to cooperate with the Chinese government.
Jesuit Father Michael Kelly, then executive director of the Asian Catholic news agency UCA News, said of his fellow Jesuit in 2013, when Bishop Jin died: "From the 1980s, much to the suspicion of some, the condemnation of others but the amazement of most, Jin walked the thin line between recognizing the authority of the government while sticking to what he believed was most basic and important to Catholicism in China."
In a tribute on ucanews.com, Father Kelly said he once asked Bishop Jin how someone who had endured life in a communist prison could allow himself to function in the government-approved church.
He said the bishop responded: "'Michael, in the last millennium, there have been three attempts to introduce Christianity into China. All ended in the persecution of Christians and the expulsion of missionaries. Three times, the interventions had to begin with another wave of foreigners. I don't want there to have to be a fourth time.'"
In a 2017 interview with Gianni Valente of La Stampa, Shanghai's Bishop Shen, then bishop of Haimen, said, "We have understood long time ago that in China, to carry on, it is convenient not to oppose the government, and sometimes we have to … distinguish between ecclesial matters, matters of faith on one side, and economic and administrative issues, which in itself do not affect the deposit of faith, on another side."
"Jesus says we must be smart as snakes and simple as doves," he said in response to a question about church officials' relations with civil authorities.
Prayers for the church in China also include prayers for Hong Kong, where the former bishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and five others were convicted and fined in 2022 for failing to register a humanitarian fund set up to help people arrested in anti-government protests pay legal fees. Cardinal Zen, now 91, had his passport taken away. Hong Kong authorities allowed him to leave for Pope Benedict XVI's funeral in January, after which the cardinal returned to China.
Hodge told OSV News that "faith helps to bring people together and see beyond an oppressive political regime that wants to keep people isolated and dependent on the regime for security, meaning, prosperity and social bonding."
"The increasing growth and vitality of the church will depend on nurturing strong families and communities of faith, courage and charity -- for which we pray on this World Day of Prayer for China through the patronage of Our Lady Help of Christians," Hodge said.