The past of our Congregation’s ministry in China was filled with dramatic turns and twists of events. Our ministry was immortalized by the martyrdom of Briega who, though not in Chinese soil, shed his blood for China. As China still remains an enigma as far as evangelization is concerned, maintaining our relationship with the community that was formed by our predecessors is a privilege rather than a responsibility to remain relevant as ministers of the word in China.
My first visit to Huangshan, the holy ground of our ministry in China was made to visit the few living faithful who knew our missionaries personally. I met two of them, Nicholas and Liberado. They were students of the medical college run by Bro. Torres CMF in the 1947-48 batch which consisted of 9 students.
The story of Nicholas is already familiar to many Claretians through the book we had published ‘Retracing their FOOTPRINTS’. Nicholas survived 20 years of incarceration in the jail for being a Catholic by transcribing the Spanish New Testament that he had managed to smuggle into the jail. That handwritten copy is preserved with us in Macau. Fr. Mario procured a papal blessing for Nicholas he received with great emotion.
Healthwise, age is catching up with Nicholas. He moves very slow, the space between each step less than a half a foot. Faithwise, he cuts a larger than life figure, reaching an hour earlier, sitting in the first seat on the first pew and still responding loudly and distinctly. During mass, I could not escape the thought that he was a living relic. Liberado is a little more agile and invited me for a lunch as I went to give him Holy Communion.
Of late, the community gets more members after a new large signboard is placed in front of the Church, prominently by the roadside. The new comers are generally the catholic business community from Fu Zhou. The day after I reached Huangshan, about 30 Catholics gathered for the mass and very fervently attended the mass with singing and prayers. Some of the prayers were chanted in the typical Chinese-Budhist style, which was my first experience in a Chinese inculturated prayer style. This is in sharp contrast to Macau or Hong Kong communities whose liturgies are yet to find the Chinese ethos, perhaps because of the strong colonial past. Interestingly, a couple brought two boys, identical twins, for a blessing. Both of them wanted to become priests!
The condition of the whole Diocese of Hefei (Anhui) cannot be said as encouraging as the community in Huangshan. The diocese has about 55000 Catholics to be managed by 16 priests only. Summer catechism or other religious education programs are quite restricted in the area. Priestly formation inside the diocese or sending candidates outside the diocese also encounter cumbersome difficulties for adequate implementation.
A strong lay leadership is to be raised there in order to sustain the faith of the people until an agreement can be reached between Vatican and China.
I also visited Shexian church, which was erected by the Jesuits and then took over by the Claretians in 1930’s as people there remember with appreciation. During the Cultural Revolution era, the church was ransacked and only the skeleton remained which was later occupied by some families. Although the church was later handed over to the Diocese of Anhui for upkeep, for want of resources the Diocese handed it over to the Government. This year, the Government has started repair and renovation of the building, evacuating families who had settled on the church compound.
I was able to enter the rooms where our missionaries stayed. Some walls had quotes from the Bible written in Chinese but most writings have been erased by whitewashing the written areas or scrubbing. However, it is a welcome change to see that the township has finally decided to maintain the church building as the mark of their Christian past.
As I left the place, meeting some important people, I had already got emotionally attached to the community and our heritage there. I hope for better days for the community and for more conducive atmosphere for the pastors.