Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Easter in Beijing

During the Lenten season, we attempted to attend mass more diligently. Initially we went to a non-denominational service with a couple from Nadia's school. It was in a large auditorium reserved on Sunday's for Christian based religious worship. We were required to show our passports to gain access. Maybe not known to all, but religion is banned in communist China, it is illegal for Chinese Nationals to attend church.

We felt we needed to attend Catholic service. So we tapped into our resources; my Aunt Rae, a former employee of the Detroit Jesuits, as well as Father Mark a practicing Jesuit, as well as my Dad's cousin, as well as the Father at our wedding. In my investigation of Catholic churches in Beijing, I found a comment that "Catholic churches in China are not recognized by the Vatican." Furthermore, "The Vatican has had no ties with Beijing since the Communists came to power in 1949."

Long story short, Aunt Rae put us in contact with a couple of Jesuits living in China. Fr. Ron Anton, the former Dean of the Sellinger School of Business at Loyola College in Maryland (who knew Aunt Rae had these kind of connections!!!) was able to recommend a Catholic church to us, and reassured us that any Catholic church we attend in China is fine.

We landed on Nan Tang (South Cathedral). It was originally founded by the Jesuit missionary the early 17th century, burned down and was rebuilt in 1904.

Easter mass was overwhelming. We arrived at the Cathedral early, and had a chance to witness the end of mass in Chinese. The historic building was pouring with Chinese people. We did not see anyone checking or verifying passports. No question there were hundreds of Chinese Nationals at the ceremony amongst a spattering of expats.

The transition between ceremonies was complete bedlam. We have become more tolerant, however, we have not fully grown comfortable with the pushing, line cutting, invasion of personal space, & overall discourteous & ad hoc chaos that accompanies these types of situations.
Outside, the church itself is an amazing contrast. Not only between modern skyscrapers, but amongst traditional Chinese architecture this old missionary church is plopped in the middle of hu tongs, Starbucks, subway stations, and high rises.

Inside, equally intriguing. What I would consider an old cathedral (granted, I have never been to Europe) situated with flat screens and PowerPoint slide shows, projecting hymns, and a video feed of the alter (in HD no less!). Also, the Mass is broadcast over a PA system in the courtyard, so the hundreds not able to get inside could hear. A surreal experience of numerous nationalities joining in a common Faith.
Almost all the Churches we have attended in the States are at times very solemn. During Mass we found it difficult to meditate and concentrate do to various distractoins: the Audio/Video, people flagrantly talking and texting on cell phones, multiple hushed converstations, people constantly coming and going, etc.

The aspect we had a really hard time with was Communion. The receiving of the Eucharist was pandemonium in contrast to our expectations. In true "Beijing queue" form, like a shot to start the race, everyone "bum rushed" the front of the church. No neat, orderly, reverent single file line; men, women, children all pushing and pressing to receive Eucharist before their fellow parishioner.
We will go back and I hope it would be less chaotic then the our Easter experience.

The fact that many Chinese Nationals are taking a risk by attending service is a real life example of the Beatitudes; "Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

I find myself criticizing the differences in culture. My intention is to share the experience as best as I can through the blog. I find that sometimes that is accomplished by highlighting the differences.


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