Why the feast of Mary, Help of Christians is a special day for Catholics in China

Church in China National Shrine and Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Sheshan, also known as Basilica of Mary, Help of Christians, in Shanghai, China. | lobia, Wikimedia.

Seventeen years ago today, Pope Benedict XVI asked that all Catholics in the world observe May 24, traditionally observed as the liturgical memorial of Our Lady, Help of Christians, as a special day of prayer for Christians in China. 

The late pope wrote a letter to Catholics in China in 2007, laying out “some guidelines concerning the life of the Church and the task of evangelization in China.” The letter was not merely a set of prescriptions, however. In the May 27, 2007, letter, Pope Benedict praised Catholics in China for their joyful resilience in the face of many years of persecution under an atheist state. 

“You know well how much you are present in my heart and in my daily prayer and how deep is the relationship of communion that unites us spiritually,” the pope wrote to China’s Catholics, whose ranks according to one study peaked at 12 million in 2005. 

Benedict, who led the Church from 2005–2013, expressed his hope that “a great harvest of faith will be reaped in the vast and vibrant Asian continent.”

“Beloved Catholic Church in China, you are a small flock present and active within the vastness of an immense people journeying through history,” he wrote. 

In his letter, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed May 24, the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians, to also be a World Day of Prayer for the Church in China, venerating the Blessed Virgin Mary under that title as the country’s patroness. Pope Francis has promoted the May 24 day of prayer during his pontificate. 

“I encourage you to celebrate it by renewing your communion of faith in Jesus Our Lord and of faithfulness to the pope, and by praying that the unity among you may become ever deeper and more visible,” Pope Benedict wrote. 

“On that same day, the Catholics of the whole world — in particular those who are of Chinese origin — will demonstrate their fraternal solidarity and solicitude for you, asking the Lord of history for the gift of perseverance in witness, in the certainty that your sufferings past and present for the Holy Name of Jesus and your intrepid loyalty to his vicar on earth will be rewarded, even if at times everything can seem a failure.”

Pope Benedict’s “Prayer for the Church in China,” to be prayed today, May 24, can be found here. 

‘Her mission is to proclaim Christ’

In his 2007 letter, Pope Benedict noted a growing interest in Christianity in China amid a culture with a “tendency towards materialism and hedonism.” 

He also strongly denounced the Chinese state’s attempts to “place themselves above the bishops and to guide the life of the ecclesial community,” saying such an arrangement “does not correspond to Catholic doctrine” and that the Catholic clergy “cannot be subject to any external interference.” The pope has authority over the religious sphere but is not a political authority in China, he said. 

“It is therefore indispensable, for the unity of the Church in individual nations, that every bishop should be in communion with the other bishops and that all should be in visible and concrete communion with the pope,” the pope said.

However, he continued, “the requisite and courageous safeguarding of the deposit of faith and of sacramental and hierarchical communion is not of itself opposed to dialogue with the authorities concerning those aspects of the life of the ecclesial community that fall within the civil sphere.”

Benedict expressed a hope that the Vatican and China may someday establish diplomatic relations, stressing that “the Holy See always remains open to negotiations, so necessary if the difficulties of the present time are to be overcome.”

The Church is not tied to a political system, he noted: “Therefore, the Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the state; rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ to men and women, as the Savior of the world, basing herself — in carrying out her proper apostolate — on the power of God.”

“The civil authorities are well aware that the Church in her teaching invites the faithful to be good citizens, respectful and active contributors to the common good in their country, but it is likewise clear that she asks the state to guarantee to those same Catholic citizens the full exercise of their faith, with respect for authentic religious freedom,” Benedict wrote. 

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Christians in China

China has long been a difficult place to be a Christian. The Chinese government technically recognizes Catholicism as one of five “official” religions in the country, but there also exists an underground Catholic Church, which is persecuted and loyal to the pope. 

Government-approved Catholic churches, on the other hand, have comparatively more 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 preaching. 

Religious believers of all stripes are surveilled in China, and China has also cracked down on religious freedom in other areas, such as its special administrative region of Hong Kong. (Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, speaking to EWTN in 2017, suggested that Pope Benedict’s 2007 letter, which Zen helped to draft, may have been mistranslated into Chinese in a way that limited its effectiveness.)

Since coming to power in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has mandated the “sinicization” of all religions in China, a move the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called “a far-reaching strategy to control, govern, and manipulate all aspects of faith into a socialist mold infused with ‘Chinese characteristics.’”

Presently in China, Catholic priests are only allowed to minister in recognized places of worship in which minors under the age of 18 are not allowed to enter. Religious groups in China have been barred from conducting any religious activities online without first applying and receiving approval from the provincial Department of Religious Affairs.

The Holy See first entered into a provisional two-year agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops in 2018, which has since been renewed twice and is again up for renewal this fall. China has repeatedly violated the agreement by installing its own bishops without the Vatican’s approval, but Vatican officials have said that the Holy See is “determined” to continue dialogue with China.

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Spring 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of a Church council that took place in Shanghai in 1924 — the first, and so far only, Council of the Chinese Catholic Church. The council, which took place 25 years before the Chinese Communist Revolution, brought together 105 Catholic missionaries, bishops, and Chinese Catholics to establish a framework for a native Chinese hierarchy.

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