No shrine from China in the 'rosary marathon' against the pandemic

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There was some hope that the Marian Shrine of Mary Help of Christians in Sheshan, in the People's Republic of China, would be included among the shrines of reference for one of the daily rosaries for the end of pandemic called by Pope Francis during May. 

But the final list did not have that shrine, nor any other one in China. 

The Marian shrine of Sheshan is a reference point for Catholics in China. Every year, during May, the shrine is the destination of pilgrimages from all over the country, especially on her May 24 feast.

The shrine of Sheshan is located in the Diocese of Shanghai, where Bishop Taddeo Ma Daqin has been under house arrest since 2012.

For the second consecutive year, authorities have suspended pilgrimages to Sheshan arguing COVID-related restrictions.

The diocese said that "since the pandemic at home and abroad is not yet under control, and measures for the prevention of the pandemic are still in place in the nation, to comply with the requests and regulations of the municipal government [of Shanghai] … The annual May pilgrimage to Sheshan has been canceled."

This year restrictions, however, appeared to be arbitrary since the massive amusement park in Sheshan has reopened; and since March, places of worship have been reopened in many other provinces, albeit amid strict health measures.

Benedict XVI composed in 2008 a prayer for Our Lady of Sheshan and set the day of prayer for the Church in China on May 24. This decision followed his 2007 letter to the Catholics in China.

Fr. Gianni Criveller, an Italian missionary who lived in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, and the People's Republic of China between 1991 and 2017, stressed with CNA that "since Benedict XVI established the day of prayer for the Church in China and indicated the shrine of Sheshan as a reference point, the Chinese government made the pilgrimages increasingly more difficult."

He added that the difficulties in getting to Sheshan varied according to the state of the Beijing – Holy See relations: when there were fewer tensions, the pilgrimages were more manageable, when tensions escalated, the pilgrimages were incredibly hard.

However, he said, "things were under increasing control of the Chinese government. Before, going from Hong Kong and Shanghai, and from there to Sheshan, was easy, while after establishing the day of prayer for the Church in China, it was not anymore."

In the first draft of the list of shrines involved in the Rosary Marathon, May 24 had no shrine indicated, just a "to be confirmed." This raised hopes that the shrine of Sheshan would be joining others around the world.

A source from China told CNA that there were "informal contacts" to explore if “things could happen” in Sheshan. But at the end, the Chinese shrine was not included. 

"The pandemic – said Fr. Criveller – “is an easy alibi, so the government can keep the shrine closed and at the same time not say that it does not want pilgrimages and prayer to take place."

Yet there is, on May 24, a feeble connection with China. The shrine of the day is that of Our Lady of Lourdes in Nyaunglebin, in Burma. The shrine is almost 160 kilometers from Yangon, whose archbishop is Charles Maung Cardinal Bo. Cardinal Bo, amid a severe crisis in his country, also had the strength to proclaim a week of prayer for the Catholics of China.

China is the "big absentee" in this extraordinary Rosary marathon. The Vatican has shown many signs of goodwill to China, and it renewed last year the agreement ad experimentum for the appointment of bishops. So far, China has not reciprocated.

The measures on religious staff announced by the State Administration for Religious Affairs in February of this year entered into force on May 1 in China.

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The new regulations present several restrictions for religions. The UCA News agency stressed that "indirectly, the regulations state that the election of a Catholic bishop will be done by the system approved by the state under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party, while Pope Francis or the Holy See will have no role in the process."

Devotion to Mary in China dates back to the time of the mission of Jesuit Matteo Ricci. Received by the emperor Jan. 22, 1601, Matteo Ricci brought 12 gifts, including the copy of the image of Maria Salus Populi Romani, kept in Santa Maria Maggiore in the chapel where St. Ignatius of Loyola celebrated his first Mass.

The Jesuits were also the proponents of the Sheshan devotion. In 1863, Jesuits acquired the shrine's hill, and in 1870 they vowed to build a basilica on that hill if Our Lady saved the diocese from destruction following a bloody revolt.

Our Lady listened to the prayer, and a year later, the first stone of the first Marian Basilica in Asia was laid. In 1874, Bl. Pius IX granted a plenary indulgence to pilgrims who visited the sanctuary, and in 1894 there were so many pilgrimages that it was decided to build a new church.

In 1924, the first Chinese synod, convened in Shanghai by the then apostolic delegate Celso Costantini, established that Our Lady of Sheshan be proclaimed "Queen of China."

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