Zhao had not attended Mass for a long time. It was difficult to find a Mass in the city where he lived.
“Come with me. I attend Mass every Sunday,” his friend Qian, from Tianjin, had told him proudly.
Keeping the Faith
(Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a 5-part series of articles that has taken you behind the scenes into the lives and struggles of our Chinese brothers and sisters. Please read their letter to you.)
So Zhao went to Tianjin to visit Qian one Saturday.
Qian was happy to see his friend and invited him to share a special dinner at his home. Qian's wife had left to visit her parents, making room for their guest since the family had only one double bed.
The two friends talked over dinner: about their young wives, their work, and their religion.
Qian explained that he had been born in a Catholic village. When he was young the Catholic faith was considered a superstition and forbidden by the government. But Qian's parents said prayers secretly at home each mornings and evening. Watching them as a child, Qian was curious. As he grew older his mother told him that they were Catholics, and taught him prayers such as the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary.” Of course they kept their religious life a secret.
“It's 10 o'clock. We must go to bed now, because we have to get up early tomorrow morning,” Qian finally said. After showers, the two men knelt down beside the double bed and to say prayers. They said prayers for the day, from a book that Qian owned. Then they said the Rosary, and lay down to sleep.
Qian drifted off quickly, but Zhao could not. He was excited about the prospect of going to Mass.
Official Parish, Underground Church
The alarm clock woke them up at 3 AM. Zhao almost could not open his eyes. Qian had his own bike and he had borrowed one for Zhao. They left home at 3:15. It was autumn, and Zhao felt the cold through his shirt in the early morning air. The city was dark, and the residents were still sleeping–except the thousands of Catholics who had quietly left their homes and were now traveling across the town.
Qian and Zhao would ride their bicycles 25 miles to reach the church where Mass was celebrated at 6:30. At that early hour, buses were not available to take them to the church, which was in a Catholic village named Zhongxinzhuang, southeast of central Tianjin.
Strictly speaking, the parish church in Zhongxinzhuang belongs to government's approved Patriotic Church. However, Father Shi Hong Zhen is the celebrant there. He is a priest of the Tianjin diocese of the “official” Church, but he publicly proclaims his loyalty to the Holy See, and accepts the authority of the underground Catholic bishop rather than the prelate appointed by the government. (In fact the loyal Catholics of the region refer to the priest as “Thin Shi,” thus distinguishing him from “Fat Shi,” who is the government-approved bishop of Tianjin.)
“Thin Shi” was assigned to a parish in downtown Tianjin before he announced his loyalty to Rome. Then he was transferred to a parish in a Catholic village called Renzizhuang, a Tianjin suburb. When loyal Roman Catholics began to travel the 10 miles from the city to Renzizhuang for Sunday Mass, authorities decided to move the priest again, sending him further out of the city to Zhongxinzhuang, hoping that they would separate him from the Catholics of Tianjin.
A Rare Confession
As the two men pedaled along the road, Zhao grew cold and tired; his legs were stiff and sore, and the road still stretched on through the darkness. Qian, who was accustomed to the exercise from his weekly visits, was morecomfortable. .
They arrived in the church of Zhongxinzhuang at 6:10. The church was already crowded with people. The ones who did could not fit into the pews had to stand at the back of the church. Zhao and Qian stood there, too. It was a typical church building, square in shape, with a tower. And there were thousands of people inside.
Father Shi was in his confessional, with people waiting in line outside. Zhao joined the line. When his time came, he was so nervous–having been so long since his last visit to a Catholic church–that he could not remember whether the priest had asked him to say 10 “Hail Mary's” or 10 Rosaries. To be safe he said the Rosary 10 times that day.
After Mass, Qian took Zhao back downtown. There Zhao would catch a train home so that he could be back at on Monday. Qian invited Zhao to have breakfast at a roadside stand but Zhao only nibbled a little. He was too tired to eat.
This article originally appeared in Catholic World Report and is adapted with permission.
Here are the previous four installments of Pan Zhen's “China: Notes from the Underground” series:
Part 2: “We Are Brothers”