Wenxuan recalled how several years ago a friend in China left the Catholic Church and joined a cult.
This friend was in a “dangerous place,” she said, so she talked to him every day and tried to convince him to go back to Mass and confession. However, the friend realized that his church, which belonged to the government’s Patriotic Association, was “illegal” in the Vatican’s eyes, and because the bishop was excommunicated, “he just couldn’t do it” and refused to return to the faith.
Eventually the man returned to the Catholic Church, but the division between the government-backed Church and that of Rome caused him serious doubt, Wenxuan said.
“That’s why we need legal bishops,” she said.
The agreement between China and the Vatican was signed last month in Beijing, though no specifics were released. On the same day, the Vatican announced it would be lifting the excommunication of seven bishops who had been ordained without the pope’s authority, meaning that for the first time, all bishops in China are now approved by the Holy See. However, the fate of China’s “underground” bishops is still unknown.
Since the Communist takeover of China in 1949, the Catholic Church in the country has been divided between an “official” church that is registered and cooperates with the government’s Patriotic Association, and an “underground” church which resists its control.
Currently a student at Notre Dame University pursuing a doctorate in Biblical studies related to the Old Testament, specifically texts from Assyria and Babylonia, Wenxuan joined a number of her fellow students on a panel discussion in Rome on Thursday organized by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture during the October Synod of Bishops on youth.
Crux and the Diocese of Orange helped organize the event.
Wenxuan, a convert to Catholicism, made the decision to get baptized at the age of 14 after she was inspired to read about the Catholic Church following visits to several old churches with her mother, who is a history professor.
Though her family was unreligious, Wenxuan said she and her mother visited different churches, considered historical sites in China, throughout her childhood. After being moved by the beauty of a particular church at the age of five, she kept returning to it and began reading about Catholicism online.
When she converted, Wenxuan said she was not asked to register or sign any official document to demonstrate whether she belonged to a registered, government-backed church. Most Catholics in China, she said, don’t distinguish themselves “in that extreme way.”
Going to Mass, “you won’t tell the difference at all,” she said, noting that even in patriotic churches, “on the pastoral level they are orthodox, you hear good homilies, so it’s the same.”
Though she normally attends a patriotic church when she returns to Beijing, Wenxuan said that when traveling, she will at times go to an “underground” church, which on the outside seems like any other church, “but they just have some problems with the government.”
In terms of the faith life in China, Wenxuan said she has never seen or experienced problems and that the situation is not as strict as western nations frequently depict it.
Generally speaking, “people are not hostile to Christians,” she said. “They don’t know what’s going on. Sometimes they think you’re stupid because you believe in something that just sounds crazy,” such as Catholic teachings on the trinitarian nature of God or Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, “but that’s it.”
“They just don’t like it, but they can still be friends,” she said, adding that she has yet to witness any “hardcore persecution, at least in my own circle in Beijing,” though she admitted that in Beijing people are likely more careful and the situation could be different in more rural areas.
Referring to reports of government vandalism of churches, Wenxuan said she’s heard of it happening, but has never witnessed it directly.
She also referred to a new government crackdown on religion in China reportedly banning anyone under 18 from entering a church or attending parish activities, saying that at least in Beijing, this is not the case.
Though it might be a problem in some specific towns, Wenxuan said that in Beijing, “of course” young people under 18 can attend Mass. At least in her parish, “we have catechism class and summer camps for those kids. It’s normal.”
“Whatever is coming from the government, probably there are more restrictions, but they are not influencing the very basic pastoral level of normal faithful. Their life is the same,” she said.
Noting how two Chinese bishops are attending the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment currently taking place in Rome, marking the first time Chinese prelates have ever been able to attend, Wenxuan said she thinks their presence is “great,” and a positive sign for the Church in China.
“The Church is one. In China, we always confess that the Church is one, we’ve always been saying this, but it’s still important to make it physically one, so I think it’s good,” she said, adding that in China, and even in patriotic parishes, “people love the pope, love the Vatican.”
“People are crazy with the pope,” she said, adding that since Chinese Catholics are more traditional in their faith and practice, it doesn’t take much for them to be enthusiastic over anything to do with Rome, or with Pope Francis, who she said has a positive.