Chinese Catholics and the Centenary of the Communist Party

August 19, 2021
Notre Dame de Sheshan

Catholic dioceses across China hosted celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), while pilgrimages to China’s national Marian Shrine have been banned.

Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, missionary priest and journalist, who has covered the Church in China for the past two decades as editor of AsiaNews, told the Catholic News Agency (CNA) that “every community, every diocese has done congresses, performances, theaters, and even pilgrimages to the places of the Communist Party history.”

For example, Bishop Joseph Li Shan of Beijing hosted a watch party at the bishop’s residence for President Xi Jinping's July 1 speech marking the centenary of the CCP. Forty priests and Church members attended a symposium in Jiangxi province to study how to "implement the spirit" of Xi's speech.

And Catholics in Hubei held a flag raising ceremony and party celebration, according to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (ACPC) website.

“But,” continues Fr. Cerverella, “they are forbidden to go on pilgrimage to Our Lady of Sheshan, the national sanctuary for Our Lady in China.”

For the missionary, this situation illustrates the challenges currently facing Catholic communities living under the watchful eye of the CCP.

The three years since the interim agreement was first signed in September 2018 - which was renewed for two more years in 2020 - reveal a very different situation between underground Catholics and those dependent on the government-backed ACPC.

Fr. Cerverella shows the harshness applied against the underground Catholic community: “We have seen some convents of sisters destroyed, churches closed. We have seen priests chased from their parishes and also some seminarians forbidden to study theology ... and also bishops who have been arrested or placed under house arrest.”

Churches approved by the government - and which the Vatican has recognized - enjoy greater freedom of worship, but face other challenges, including pressure from the government to censor parts of Catholic teaching, while including Chinese nationalism and love for the party in sermons.

Thus, priests who are legally ministering in China are required to sign a document in which they promise to support the CCP. They are only allowed to minister in recognized places of worship, in which minors under the age of 18 are not allowed to enter.

“And above all, they have to praise the glory of the Communist Party,” points out Fr Cervellera.

The Vatican is happy that five bishops have been appointed under the framework established by the bilateral agreement since 2018. But Fr. Cervellera says the Church in China needs at least 40 more bishops.

“The bishops who have been nominated and ordained are all officers of the Patriotic Association. In other words, they are very close to the government,” added the missionary.

In other words, as predicted by many observers, including the very energetic Cardinal Joseph Zen, this agreement is a calamitous disaster. The “underground” Catholics, the true Catholics, are even more marginalized and persecuted, and the ACPC increasingly takes the freed up place, but it draws the faithful into a schismatic Church, subservient to the CCP.

Fr. Cervellera found it strange that few dioceses organized local celebrations for the World Day of Prayer for the Church of China, established by Benedict XVI and fixed for May 24, the feast of Mary Help of Christians.

Thousands of Chinese Catholics used to make pilgrimages on that date to the Basilica of Our Lady of Sheshan. This pilgrimage was banned again this year, a few weeks before the diocesan gatherings organized to celebrate a century of the CCP.

The local government cited the Covid-19 pandemic to justify the ban, but Chinese Catholics pointed out that the nearby amusement park and other tourist spots near Sheshan Hill were open on that date.