It was not by accident that we walked through the front arch of the Nantang (Southern Cathedral) a full two hours early for the six o’clock Christmas Eve Mass. The four of us had been living in Beijing for four months by the time the Advent Season had begun. We knew, from first-hand experience, just how exhausting and time consuming it could be to travel from our apartment in Beijing’s northwest corner to one of the city’s downtown Roman Catholic cathedrals. We also were well-aware of the tendency for Chinese cathedrals, of which there are relatively few in a country of perhaps 13 million Catholics, to fill up rather early. Just how early? On Christmas Eve, we quickly discovered that we had indeed entered the cathedral just in the nick of time, as there was only one pew left that had enough room for four people and an unobstructed view of the altar.
As Desi (my wife), Julie (our 13-year-old daughter), Zoli (our 11-year-old son), and I prepared for a year of living in China, we had a sense that being Catholic in a predominantly non-Christian country would present us with some serious challenges and, we hoped, some lasting joys. We had only been on the ground for about 48 hours when both of these intuitions were resoundingly confirmed. Sitting in the Northern Cathedral (Xishiku), we found ourselves overwhelmed by the prospect of following the Mass as it was celebrated in Mandarin. Although we had been studying Mandarin for three years prior to our arrival in China, language specific to the Order of the Mass had not been part of our lessons. Any discomfort we were feeling, though, evaporated the moment the opening hymn began. The cathedral’s high vaults were filled with the voices of the gathered worshippers, all of who it seemed were singing joyfully and without reservation as the priest and ministers processed in and venerated the altar. From that day on, the four of us were committed to fighting through the difficulties and attending services celebrated in Mandarin, despite the availability in Beijing of English-language Masses. This was a choice we rarely regretted, as what followed was a year of experiencing our Catholic faith as it is practiced with “Chinese characteristics.”
For the four of us, attending Sunday Mass in China was akin to experiencing, on a weekly basis, the elevated sense of solemnity we normally associate with special times like the Easter Season. It is almost as if there is no such thing as “ordinary time” in the Chinese Catholic calendar. There was not a single Mass we took part in where incense did not figure prominently. Incense was burned during entrance processions. Incense was burned as Gospels were proclaimed. Incense was burned when priests elevated the Sacred Host and chalice of Precious Blood after consecration.
Chinese Masses are distinctive for more than the sights and sounds of their High Holy Day rituals. “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to His supper.” As soon as the celebrant and worshippers proclaim these words, absolute chaos (to our Western eyes) breaks out in the cathedral. Every single person in the congregation (including Desi, Julie, Zoli, and myself) immediately stands up and simultaneously tries to make his or her way down the aisle to receive Holy Communion. The Chinese people, 1.3 billion strong and still growing, have a collective aversion toward paidui (lining up). As we were reminded every Sunday, it doesn’t matter if you are out on the street or inside a house of worship. You are crowded. You are pushed. You are cut off. Eventually, though, you make it up to the front and get to have your own private moment with the priest and the Lord Himself.
Chinese culture has, for many centuries, left an indelible mark on how Catholicism is perceived and practiced in the Middle Kingdom. One day, the four of us set out to find the tomb of Matteo Ricci, the sixteenth century Jesuit missionary who succeeded in the extraordinarily difficult task of establishing a Catholic mission in China. Ricci’s approach, which was eventually prohibited by the Holy See, accommodated traditional Chinese rituals such as honoring Confucius and deceased ancestors. In recognition of his many contributions to Chinese society (Ricci was also a skilled cartographer and translator), Emperor Wanli broke with precedent and bestowed upon Ricci, even though he was a foreigner, the distinction of a Beijing burial. Today, Ricci’s grave site is located in the heart of the tree-lined campus of Beijing Administrative College, where municipal civil servants study, among other subjects, the history of the Chinese Communist Party. Ricci’s stele itself is a blend of Catholic and Chinese symbols, with the inscription “Iesous Hominum Salvator” (“Jesus, Savior of Man”) surrounded by carved images of dragons, those ancient representations of immortality, the Emperor, and the nation itself.
Exiting from the cathedral on that Christmas Eve, the four of us were anxious to return home where we could spend a quiet night together as a family. Much to our bewilderment, such a quick passage turned out to be an impossibility. The downtown streets were embroiled in a gridlock that was overwhelming even by Beijing standards. There were young people everywhere, dressed up and celebrating a night on the town by the thousands. Christmas, we were discovering in real time, is treated by many residents of China’s largest cities as a kind of cross between New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day. For close to an hour, we inched through the crowd, until finally we turned the corner and sped away, leaving behind this remarkable blending of Christian holiday, Western commercialism, and Chinese sensibilities.