The Hebei province borders on Beijing and Tianjin: two of China’s largest cities. Because those cities attract a great deal of attention, the neighboring province is often overlooked.
Hero to Tough Catholic Faithful
(Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a 5-part series of articles that will take you behind the scenes into the lives and struggles of our Chinese brothers and sisters. Please read their letter to you.)
Open a Chinese history book, and you will not encounter too many celebrities from Hebei. The people of the province have a reputation as honest, conservative, and perhaps a little stodgy. They are not considered as shrewd as the people of Shanghai or Canton, but they are endowed with one special characteristic: toughness.
When the Christians of Hebei chose the Roman Catholic faith, nothing could change them. The Beijing government has made a concerted effort to establish the “official” Catholic Church in Hebei, but the success of the Patriotic Association has been confined primarily to the cities. In rural Hebei there remain millions of Catholics who consider themselves Roman Catholics, loyal to the Pope.
Many of the Catholics of Hebei have died under persecution since the Communist government was established in 1949. But still the faith has developed rapidly among these tough people. Their experience proves what Jesus taught: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24)
Bishop Jia Zhi Guo of Zhengding, Hebei, is one of the most famous bishops in China. He has established a seminary, a convent, and even an orphanage in the parish where he lives. He has brought the charismatic renewal to his people, and led the clergy of his diocese in a brave campaign of evangelization.
The bishop's activities have prompted police to arrest him, again and again. In fact Bishop Jia confesses that he does not remember how many times he has been arrested. He is always prepared; he keeps his few necessary possessions packed in a small bag, so that he can grab the bag and be ready to live anywhere when he is taken into custody.
Bishop Jia has learned, from his frequent arrests, that he may be taken into custody at any time. Sometimes he is taken away on national holidays, because police decide that too many people are coming to visit him. Sometimes he is taken on the eve of important political events, such as a meeting of the People's Congress, because it is a sensitive period and government officials want to ensure peace and quiet. Sometimes he is taken because Catholics are deemed “too active” in the region.
To the government, Bishop Jia is a criminal. But to many thousands of Catholics in Hebei, and elsewhere in China, he is a hero. The faithful are proud to have a chance to speak with him; it is common to hear a loyal Catholic boast: “Hey, I saw Bishop Jia last month!”
A Personal Recollection
The summer of 2001 was hot but on this particular day, Liu Ping felt a bit cold because it was overcast. He was traveling on a bus with friends, from Shijiazhuang, the capital city of Hebei, toward the small town of Zongshizhuang. Liu Ping and his friends would not make the full trip to Zonshizhuang, however. They would get off the bus when it arrived in Wuqiu, where Bishop Jia lived. Wuqiu is a large village, with thousands of residents, of whom more than 50 percent are Catholics.
This was to be the second time that Liu Ping would meet Bishop Jia. As the bus made its way through Hebei, he recalled his first meeting with the bishop, five years earlier:
It was winter. When Liu Ping heard that Bishop Jia had been released from prison, he decided to make the trip to meet the bishop, and to visit his orphanage. It was astonishing that a bishop of the underground Catholic Church had been able to establish an orphanage! So Liu Ping took this same bus ride to Wuqiu.
The village was bustling with activity. Many of the people hurrying about the streets had come to help the bishop. Some were teachers, helping to train young men at the seminary in Pingshan, northwest of Wuqiu; they had come for a short visit with the bishop.
When Liu Ping and his friends arrived, Bishop Jia was not available, so they decided to visit the convent first. The young mother superior rushed out to greet them, and escorted them in. The nuns lived in a house with several rooms, which looked from outside like the other village houses. The furnishings were simple, consisting mostly of kangs: beds of bricks warmed by fires underneath them. The nuns would sleep across these kangs, with as many as 10 sharing one large bed.
The nuns were dressed in black–not habits, but typical Chinese clothes. Nearly all of them were young–between 20 and 25. Only a few of the nuns were home when the visitors arrived; the others were busy working at the orphanage. In addition to their work with the orphans, the sisters worked to promote the charismatic renewal.
The sisters were upbeat and friendly. They told Liu Ping that they enjoyed their lives, despite the obvious hardships. Their fondest wish, they said, was to see the Pope. One nun spoke of her dream: that China and the Vatican established diplomatic relations, the Holy Father visited, and she was one of the many excited Catholics crowing the Beijing airport to welcome him.
The visitors learned that there were nearly 200 nuns, living in houses like this scattered around the village. The government would not allow so many nuns to live in one village, so when the police came, some of them would flee to another nearby village, while others would remaining, playing the role of maids in the houses where the lived.
After a visit in the convent house, the mother superior led her guests to the orphanage. Years ago the government had not allowed the Church to establish an orphanage; the children lived as the nuns did, scattered among different houses in the village. But Bishop Jia had negotiated with government officials, eventually persuading them to accept the reality that many orphans were living in Wuqiu, and to allow him to set up a building to house them.
Liu Ping was surprised to see how many children were gathered in the rooms of the orphanage. Because there were few beds, three or four infants were forced to share a bed; for older children, two would share a bed. Most of the orphans had some sort of deformities, although there were also healthy baby girls who had been abandoned because their parents wanted a son. Except for the overcrowding, the living conditions were tolerable. The children had adequate food and clothing, all donated by the local Catholic community. The nuns doted on them; one smiling sister was holding up a handsome child who had just undergone an operation–his second–to remedy a congenital heart defect.
The number of these orphans was constantly growing. Abandoned children were frequently discovered at the doors of the parish church. The bishop would appeal to local residents to adopt some of the children.
Liu Ping and his friends ate lunch with the nuns: steamed bread, millet, and salted vegetables. Because the visitors were honored guests, the nuns served them scrambled eggs as a special treat.
They met Bishop Jia in the afternoon. The bishop greeted them with a nod. He was in black clothes, too. He looked 50 years old and had an austere expression; the lines on his face conveyed a sense of his toughness. He was silent and thoughtful, but eventually became engaged in conversation. The bishop had a reputation as a strict leader, who demanded a great deal from his clergy and from the lay people who worked for him. (One worker nervously related how he had been severely chastised for a misprint in a document he prepared for the Church. “I made him so angry!” he recalled.) On the other hand, those who needed help knew that Bishop Jia would do his best to assist them. And despite his severe manner, the bishop was popular with his people. His serious manner gave them a sense of the dignity and authority of his Church office. He encouraged them to take responsibility, to serve and defend the Church. And he was a good organizer. Despite the fact that he was frequently sent off to jail, the work of the Church–this parish, the nearby seminary, the convent, the orphanage–went on smoothly.
Bishop Jia lived in a simple two-room house near his parish church. Many people crowded into the building to meet with him, reporting on their work and taking his orders or advice. As the visitors gathered in the room with him, their conversation was frequently interrupted by new arrivals. One man came to report that the seminary had exhausted its supply of flour; the bishop told him whom he could contact to get more flour and have it sent to the seminary. A nun came with a report that someone had claimed to have a vision during a meeting of the charismatic renewal, and the bishop left his home briefly to check.
After the interview with the bishop, Liu Ping was ushered into the other room, where a spare bed was made up for him. He shared the room with a priest, and learned that the priest had only recently been released from jail. Asked to comment on his experience behind bars, the priest laughed: “Who cares? I just treat it as my second home.” An image of Pope John Paul II hung on the wall.
Liu Ping and his friends continued their visit that afternoon, observing the energetic life of the local Catholic community. Although the living conditions were difficult, the religious life was free and active.
When Liu Ping returned at night, Bishop Jia was still working at his desk. Liu Ping went to bed; his roommate the priest was already asleep.
In the morning Liu Ping was roused early by the bishop, who told him: “Get up. Got to the church and pray!” It was still dark, but the priest who had been sharing the room had already left. Liu Ping went into the simple church building, which had a mud floor and no chairs. There were a few bare electric lights hanging on beams, but it was still dim. The faithful of the parish were already gathering, standing on kneeling on the mud floor to pray, 30 minutes before the Mass began.
A Harsher Climate
Now, in 2001, Liu Ping and his friends found Wuqui quiet when they stepped off their bus. There were only a few people on the streets. The bustle of the earlier days was gone. He learned that the convent had been disbanded, and the nuns were now living in other villages.
Bishop Jia was under house arrest, living near the church, with plainclothes policemen staying nearby. So Liu Ping and his companions went first to another house. After establishing that the plainclothes police were temporarily away, they went to the church.
The church building was new, with a high tower, and beside it was another new two-story building, housing the orphanage. Workers were still putting the finishing touches on the church.
Bishop Jia lived in an old house. Liu Ping and his friends entered quickly. The room was bleak. The bishop seemed to have aged much more than five years. He blessed them, and then they began to talk.
Liu Ping and his companions relaxed, and forgot the precariousness of their situation, but the bishop constantly reminded them. “Keep your things in your pocket,” he said. “Don't hold that letter in your hand. The police may come in any time.” He repeated that warning several times.
The visitors could not stay long. Liu Ping wanted to drop in on the orphanage, where he saw several children playing in a corridor. But a traveling companion pushed him into the street, looking nervously back over his shoulder. “I saw the plainclothesman coming toward us on the street,” he explained. “They can easily see that you're not a local resident. They'll detain any strangers they find in this village.”
Liu Ping left Wuqiu safely, but his spirits were low. The situation facing the Roman Catholic Church in Hebei had deteriorated over the past five years. Still, he reminded himself, the Church will develop through this period of suffering. The seed has taken root.
This article originally appeared in Catholic World Report and is adapted with permission.
Here are the previous three installments of Pan Zhen's “China: Notes from the Underground” series:
Part 2: “We Are Brothers”