Freedom to worship, open communication scarce in China

Nathan and Martha Sprague pause on the steps of the South Cathedral, or Nantang Cathedral, last month. - Sprague family/Special to the Reporter
Nathan and Martha Sprague pause on the steps of the South Cathedral, or Nantang Cathedral, last month.
— image credit: Sprague family/Special to the Reporter

One can wax historical about America’s freedoms or get staunchly patriotic, but right now, right here in Beijing, there are just plain everyday moments when I really miss freedoms taken for granted in the United States. Take the simple opportunity of attending a Catholic Mass in English, for example.

First, freedom is fueled by information, and information can be hard to come by here. I get most of my information hearsay or through blogs, and if I lean on someone to make a call in Chinese, I learn their answers are only as good and temporary as that one person on the phone. Web sites can be non-existent, out-of-date, or of course, in Chinese. Then there is the “Great [Fire] Wall of China” which just happens to block many blogs, forums, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

The government did make a magnanimous gesture to the world during the Olympics and opened most of Wikipedia last year — but not “Beijing Catholics.” So when I Googled “Catholic Mass Beijing,” I found several earnest responses, but only pulled from much dated blogs and forums.

Officially atheist, China permits both its citizens and foreigners to worship within certain boundaries. For foreigners, it appears that the two lines in the sand are no proselytizing and requiring a government official to sanction and monitor a religious service. This put China in conflict with the Vatican, because China — not the Vatican — appointed the bishops to head the four Catholic cathedrals in Beijing. Hence, one option was attending these “patriotic churches,” not approved by the Vatican. Only one had a service in English.

Prior to moving here in early August, I found through ex pat chat groups two off-the-books Catholic services with Vatican-approved priests, never published on any Web site or referenced in magazines. They fell in the gray area of not sanctioned, but still passable to the Chinese government. Without a Chinese monitor, these Catholic services are called “private parties,” held off Church grounds, and required foreign passports for entry.

The first one was shut down before I arrived. Located in one of the foreigner villa compounds, it was shut down by the government. No reason was circulated and its re-opening date has since passed without a whisper. A few Sundays ago, we headed to a second “private party” located in the British visa office in a skyrise downtown. The office was locked and dark. Our family of five loitered in the lobby, hoping another “party guest” may show up and give more information. Luckily, a loping Irish man came by and then quizzed the guard in Chinese. Apparently, the British official who engineered the letting of the space moved back to England, and this private party no longer had a home.

This was frustrating, especially since I wanted to enroll my youngest in a First Communion class during her second grade. One more try at the Internet, such an empowering tool for us. This time, we were technically enabled — using an under-the-radar proxy that virtually locates us in an American city, rather than in China — and we looked up Beijing Catholics in Wikipedia. There, the social networked authors — so feared in China — produced a great find: we discovered that the South Cathedral’s bishop was belatedly approved by the Vatican, again during the grand gesture time of the Olympics. The South Cathedral offers one English Mass per weekend, and a very small class for First Communion students. Hallelujah! We now attend a patriotic church with the Vatican’s stamp of approval. Freedom at last!

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, also known as Nantang (the South Cathedral), is the oldest of Beijing’s four cathedrals. Its foundations date back to its origins in 1605, and the present structure, the fourth church on the site, was completed in 1904. In December 1979, Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan was consecrated in the cathedral, the first major event in the life of the Catholic Church in China after the Cultural Revolution.

Stowe Sprague, a mother of three and Mercer Island activist of sorts, is cataloguing the highlights and cultural surprises of her family’s time in China in her blog:

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