More than 1,000 Catholics in the government-recognized open Church community packed St. Joseph’s Cathedral in downtown Tianjin, 120 kilometers southeast of Beijing, for the liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on April 9.
Meanwhile, lay leaders led almost 200 other Catholics in the same Passion liturgy, the Stations of the Cross and adoration of the cross at the Marian shrine inside the cathedral compound but outside the church building.
These Catholics went to the cathedral because other meeting points for their underground Catholic community are far from the city, they told UCA News. They also explained why they did not and will not enter the cathedral itself.
“The community inside the church is run by communists,” a middle-aged man said after the liturgical service. He believes the souls of Catholics who worship inside the church will go to hell.
“We cannot have our bishop celebrating the Easter liturgy, so we would rather have our own liturgy here,” he added.
Their leader, Bishop Stephen Li Side of Tianjin, was clandestinely ordained in 1982 and is not recognized by the government. The bishop, 78, is confined to a church in a remote mountainous village in Ji county, about 100 kilometers north of Tianjin city. Bishop Joseph Shi Hongchen also was clandestinely ordained a bishop, in 1986, but the government later recognized him and he was installed in 1992 as head of Tianjin diocese in the open Church.
Bishop Shi turned to the open Church community in the hope that young priests could receive formal formation, his nephew told UCA News April 7.
The underground Catholics refuse to enter churches registered with the government because of its refusal to recognize Bishop Li.
“We will not step into the church unless the pope asks us to do so,” said an old woman who took part in the liturgy at the shrine outside the cathedral.
“We are not the same. We have no connection with those inside the cathedral,” another woman added.
According to local Catholics, the underground community has been praying and holding separate liturgies at the Marian shrine for more than 10 years, and the government is aware of its presence.
Father Zhang Liang, cathedral parish priest, told UCA News some underground Catholics pray at the Marian shrine every day and refuse to come inside the church building. “I feel sad, especially in the snowy winters, to see them kneeling and praying in front of the shrine with their small children waiting for them in the open space,” the priest continued.
A Catholic who attended the Good Friday liturgy told UCA News afterward: “It is not God’s will that we are divided. But it is very difficult for the two sides to unite at the moment.”
On Holy Saturday, underground Catholics did not return to pray at the shrine. An open Church official explained that with the Easter Vigil in the cathedral expected to draw more Catholics than the capacity of the church, the underground faithful were advised not to gather.
Other underground Catholics in Tianjin preferred to travel an hour to a church in a suburb near Tanggu district for the Holy Week liturgies.
On Holy Thursday busloads of Catholics, most belonging to the underground community, attended the Mass of the Lord’s Supper celebrated by Coadjutor Bishop Melchior Shi Hongzhen of Tianjin, who refused to join the open Church.
The 500 Catholics mostly came from downtown or elsewhere in the municipality.
Bishop Melchior Shi, who is recognized by the government only as a priest, is free to perform priestly duties, but local sources said government officials are sometimes present to monitor what he does and says.
Others also took note of the large gatherings of mostly underground Catholics for the openly held Holy Week liturgies at the church near Tanggu, along an otherwise deserted stretch of highway. Hawkers and taxi drivers would be waiting outside the church when the liturgies ended.
The government, as well as local people, know about the Catholic activities there, a Catholic told UCA News. There are even more taxis queuing after the Christmas celebrations, he added.
Yet hundreds of other Catholics of the underground community from all over the diocese traveled for several hours by public and hired vehicles to the village church in the mountainous area where Bishop Li resides.
Bishop Li, who also is recognized by the government only as a priest, led the liturgies.
© UCAN 2004 – UCAN (Union of Catholic Asian News) is linked to UCIP (International Catholic Union of the Press). With several offices around Asia, UCA News is the largest Asian Church news agency. Originally published on 16 April 2004. Posted on Religioscope with permission.