A Tale of Two Churches: In a Catholic Church in China, Mass Was a Choice, Not an Obligation

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On Christmas morning two years ago in China, I attended Mass with my friends Paul, Soojye and Christina. We had only met in the fall of that year, but as outsiders in an unfamiliar land, our friendship came easily.

When we rose for the closing hymn, we sang loudly because it was one we recognized--"Angels We Have Heard on High." As the only foreigners in this Chinese church, we already stood out, but this outburst solidified our place as an oddity worthy of prolonged stares.

We were used to stares after four months in China. We reveled in our small reminder of what Christmas was like back home. Moments of cultural overlap like this were not uncommon in the time I spent in my Chinese church.

I moved to the small Chinese city of Jiujiang in August 2006 to teach English to high school students for one year. I didn't know what to expect of my experience, but my expectations in the realm of religion were particularly foggy.

News articles I had read about the state of the Catholic church, and indeed religion itself, in China were rarely positive. We frequently see stories that tell of the tenuous relationship between Beijing and the Vatican, or perhaps of horrific human rights violations stemming from a governmental stranglehold on religious rights, albeit a stranglehold that has been gradually relaxing since the 1970s.

What the news doesn't explore is what things are actually like in the average Chinese Catholic church.

Journalists rightly seek out the situations in which the government's actions are particularly egregious, or where an individual person or parish has taken a bold stance against the current regime, but how well do these stories portray the overall experience of Chinese Catholics who just want to practice their faith without making a political statement?

Such ordinary lives paint a fuller picture of life in China than does the evening news.

It took me about a month in China before I felt comfortable enough with my language skills and the city's layout to attempt a trip to church. I knew of two Christian churches in Jiujiang, one of which was only a few blocks from my apartment. One Sunday morning I stopped by to investigate, only to find that the service had already ended. I managed to learn that the Sunday Mass was at 9 a.m. My helpful friend was trying to close up the church, but seemed. glad to have me there, so he let me look around for a few minutes.

The differences between this church and most American churches stood out immediately. Most evident was the lack of a crucifix over the altar, something I have always known in the United States. In its place was a large painting of Jesus being baptized with several cherubs flitting about overhead. It seemed an interesting restructuring of the focal point of a church, away from the death of Christ to his spiritual birth.

It was impossible to overlook the Christmas lights in the room, particularly since it was late September. From one end of the church to the other, the Christmas lights were strung overhead in lazy zigzagging arcs, each strand flashing intermittently. The lights continued right up to the front of the altar, after which they reappeared as a frame around the baptism painting.

There were also similarities between this church and the average American church; for example, the walls were lined with European paintings of biblical events, and the pews were made of hard, well-worn wood and possessed a version of the uncomfortable kneelers I was accustomed to. …