Living Lent and Easter in China

Lent is a season Christians often associate with sacrifices – whether that is giving up something we cherish or doing something charitable we normally don’t do. In fact, the Lenten and Easter seasons play out in our lives throughout the year. In life we often find God inviting us to sacrifice something, not because he doesn’t want us to have it, but because he has something better in store for us. This played out very publicly recently when news began trickling out to the world at the end of January that the Holy See has continued to make progress in fostering greater communion with the Church in China.

The latest situation involves one of the biggest disagreements between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Holy See for more than 60 years: whether or not the pope has authority to appoint bishops. The law of the Catholic Church has given the pope this universal authority since 1917, but the CCP fears this is a way for a foreign power to undermine its own authority. A couple months ago, a papal representative went to China and informed two bishops loyal to the Vatican to step down to make room for two bishops that are loyal to the CCP and who have subsequently asked the Holy Father for forgiveness and full communion.

The news led Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, to accuse the Vatican of betraying Chinese Catholics loyal to the pope and opposed to the CCP.

It is easy to see why Cardinal Zen’s conclusion makes sense. The party official in charge of religion in China, Wang Zuoan, Director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, recently said, “The foreign use of religion to infiltrate (China) intensifies by the day and religious extremist thought is spreading in some areas.”1 Even the leader of China, Xi Jinping, himself said, the Party will fully implement its basic policy on religious work, “uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation,2 and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society.”3

Given the deluge of increased persecution that Chinese Christians have experienced in the past five years under Xi Jinping, as well as how easy it is for the CCP to paint a deceptive picture of reality to unperceptive foreigners, a rational person must conclude that Chinese Catholics and the Holy See, out of fidelity to Jesus Christ, cannot trust the Communist Party.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Pope, gave a lengthy interview clarifying what had actually happened. Instead of talking about foreign policy, however, he offered a spiritual reflection as the centerpiece of the interview. He said that the Holy See is only pursuing a spiritual aim, not a political one. What animates this ongoing effort is trust in the Lord, “which does not respond to worldly logics.”

From both cardinals’ statements, it is clear that there is agreement within the Church that we place total trust in the Lord and we cannot trust a political party whose worldview is inherently against what the Church is all about: God. The disagreement within the Church for the past few decades is whether or not we ought to work with such a party in finding a solution to this impasse.

Resolving this internal disagreement has not been and will not be easy. Francis is now the third pope to have attempted to build a bridge between the CCP and the Church. Cardinal Parolin reminds us that trusting in the Lord requires “greater humility and spirit of faith to discover together God’s plan for the Church in China.” It is to recognize not just the sacrifices of the Church in China in the past 68 years, but throughout its entire history and how God had worked through it all. When Christianity was outlawed in the mid-14th century,  Christianity completely died out in China until God sent the Jesuits and other missionaries 200 years later. While Pope Clement XI in 1715 condemned the Chinese cultural practice of honoring one’s ancestors, God inspired Pius XII in 1939 to permit this cultural custom again. When Chinese Catholics were persecuted (and exterminated) in the 18th and 19th centuries, the faith then experienced a resurgence in the first half of the 20th century.

Similarly, since the 1950s, the CCP has surveilled, censored, harassed, arrested, imprisoned, and at times tortured Chinese Catholics. Just as before, God continues inviting us to trust in his saving power, to trust that after suffering and death comes the Resurrection. This radical trust and hope does not come easy. The reality is that continued persecution, condemnation, or even extinction of the Church in China are possible regardless of what course of action the Vatican takes. A possible victory for the Holy See would be to prevent a formal schism of the Church temporarily, but the duration of this victory would be wholly at the whims of the party leadership.4 This illustrates precisely why a total surrender of the self and situation makes the hope of the Resurrection so radical. It is this total surrender that the martyrs of the early Church bore witness to even though it makes no logical sense to the world.

We have witnessed and continue to witness the Church in China living out Lent in a very real way. They live out the cry of Jesus at the climax of his Passion: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” More importantly, they live out the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when he says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will” [emphasis added] as well as living out his last words before he died, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

During the Lenten and Easter seasons this year, none of us face the same persecution or the threat of martyrdom as our brothers and sisters in China do, yet we too are called to authentically live out Lent and Easter nonetheless. We fast at the beginning and end of Lent in addition to abstaining more intentionally from meat on Fridays. We make these and other sacrifices because they remind us of the total surrender and ultimate sacrifice Jesus made for all of us and of his Resurrection from the dead to save us. It is the hope of the Resurrection that is on our minds as we enter into these 40 days and 40 nights. Through our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving, we, as Christians, eagerly look towards discovering the empty tomb on Easter morning in awe and rejoice that what we had hoped for is now our reality.

  1. Also indicative of the anxiety among party leadership of the reality that there are now more Christians than Communist Party members in China
  2. A sentiment Cardinal Parolin also echoed in his interview when he said that Chinese Catholics ought “to be and feel fully Catholic and, at the same time, authentically Chinese.”
  3. This “sinicization” of religion in China became a law that went into effect February 1, 2018
  4. The endgame for the Holy See is to have final say in appointing bishops to the dozens of dioceses in China currently without a bishop. It is likely that the CCP would proceed with filling those vacancies with bishops who reject the authority of the pope completely this year under the new law on religion. Yet, even with an agreement between the CCP and Holy See, nothing prevents the CCP from reneging on the agreement, arresting all bishops loyal to the pope, and installing their own puppets anyway.

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