Catholics in China at a crossroads

While the Vatican seeks engagement, the Chinese government is increasingly hostile to people of faith

Nanjing Road in Shanghai is the main shopping district of the city. Photo: Nikada/iStock

There was no reason why Thomas would become a Christian. Although he knew of a famous Catholic church in town — a holdover from a much earlier age when foreign missionaries were free to evangelize China — he lived in a society where the pursuit of wealth was what drove most people. And following the guidance of the Communist Party, of course.

How he ended up becoming not only a Catholic but a priest as well, and how he continues to serve in spite of pressure from the government, is perhaps a story that could happen only in China.

Catholic Digest  takes a look here at Catholic life in China today, at a time when there are reports of unprecedented growth in Christianity but also increased government control. Because of potential retribution, we are using pseudonyms and withholding information on the locations of some sources quoted in this article.

Photo: sedmak/iStock

A chance encounter with an icon

Born in 1970, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, Thomas grew up to witness China’s opening to the world under leaders such as Deng Xiaoping. Graduating college in the late 1980s, he went to work in a paper recycling plant. 

“Because the paper comes from America and Hong Kong, we have a lot of interesting books and magazines,” Thomas recalled. “The first time I got to know Jesus was from an icon that would in a few minutes be recycled. … It was a really lovely picture, but I didn’t know the meaning of it. I tried to understand.”

At the same time, he befriended some teachers from England who were living in his city. They were Anglicans, and they showed him some of the charity work they were involved in and invited him to travel with them around China at the holidays. 

“I think that was the way God led me closer to him,” Thomas said.

He began to think about becoming a Christian himself. Oblivious to the divisions among Christians, he went to a Catholic church, simply because it was close to where he lived. Some religious sisters had recently started teaching religion there after the retirement of an elderly priest. Thomas was so taken by the life story of this priest — a man who had spent much time in prison and, when he was free, worked hard to spread the Gospel message — that he began to feel a call to dedicate his own life to ministry. 

He was baptized on Easter 1999, along with 65 other people, and then entered seminary, finally being ordained a priest in 2010. His life ever since has been like a marathon, spending more than 12 hours a day attending to people’s needs, leading Bible studies, and contending with government “minders.” He serves at a church that belongs to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and is therefore “legal.” But that doesn’t mean that Fr. Thomas and his parishioners aren’t watched by officials. (See “A delicate relationship with China,” near the bottom of this article.)

The square of St. Ignatius Cathedral, also referred to as Xujiahui Cathedral, in Shanghai. Photo: rodho/iStock


People ‘thirsty’ for the Gospel

In spite of that, Thomas’ parish has grown a lot, a fact that doesn’t surprise some China observers. One source said that in the Beijing diocese alone, there are at least 2,000 to 3,000 baptisms every year.

“The Church is booming, in spite of it all,” said an American who has lived and worked in China for 25 years and wishes to remain anonymous. “Every church in the city is just chockablock with people all weekend long. There are a lot of Masses, a lot of classes going on, a lot of stuff happening.” 

The Church is booming.

Fr. Thomas said there are “many young people” in his city “who are very thirsty for the Good News, and they need to know Jesus.”

But the Church has big competition for their attention. 

“The government always wants to control the Church,” he said. “The truth and the faith can make the people wake up. … [The government] wants the people to sleep, so I am the enemy for that. … I must protect myself and be careful, and also I need to protect the Church and my people.”

The anonymous American source said the government can control the Church in a number of ways: limiting the number of seminarians and ordinations, the number of churches built, and so on. 

“But the government doesn’t fully comprehend that you can’t keep down the spirit,” he said. “It’s like grass growing in the cracks of the sidewalk.”

Some young Chinese who spoke with Catholic Digest drove home that point. Julie, a teacher and mother of two, belongs to a Patriotic Association church in another part of China. Although she feels she can attend Mass openly, she said a government official recently called her to ask about her faith. It was the first time that has happened to her.

Julie has no qualms in telling someone she’s Catholic, but she’s a bit perplexed. “Before, they didn’t care,” she said in an interview in September 2018. “I’m not sure what they want to do.”

The Ruins of St. Paul’s are the ruins of a 17th-century complex in Santo António, Macau, China. It includes what was originally St. Paul’s College and the Church of St. Paul, also known as ‘Mater Dei,’ a 17th-century Portuguese church dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle. Photo: Jui-Chi Chan/iStock


A new crackdown on religious freedom? 

Chinese President Xi Jinping has alarmed many observers for what appears to be a radical consolidation of power — and his policies seem to be generally anti-religious. In the fall of 2017, Xi gave a four-hour speech at the National People’s Congress, in which he said China needs to tighten ideological controls to ensure that the next generation is raised to believe in “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

“In many ways we’re going back to the 1950s, when Chairman Mao [Zedong] said, ‘We’re going to stamp out religious belief altogether,’” said Steven Mosher, author of Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream Is the New Threat to World Order (Regnery Publishing, 2017) and president of the Population Research Institute. “We may not be able to do so with this generation of believers, but if we prevent them from passing their beliefs on to their children, it will die out within a generation or two.”

In many ways we’re going back to the 1950s.

Under new regulations announced in February 2018, all religious gatherings other than those specifically approved by the government are forbidden. 

It’s not just the law that poses a challenge, though. Said the American who has worked in China for 25 years, “The Church suffers from the same kind of problems other places around the world experience. Youth who were raised Catholic drift away. They don’t have a Catholic identity. They get distracted by work, fun, cell phones, travel.”

“The major temptation for Christians and also the priests is the worldly values that substitute the Gospel values: the materialism, the consumerism, especially for priests,” said Fr. Franco Mella, a missionary from Italy who has worked in Hong Kong and parts of mainland China his entire adult life. “To have money, to have cars, to have buildings in which to live, to have a sense of superiority over the other Christians, and so on. It’s much more subtle than the pressure from the government.”

Nevertheless, Julie said that priests have to be careful about what they say at Mass because a few years ago, the government installed video cameras inside houses of worship. “They can take a full scan of the church,” she said. “They can record the whole Mass.”

The underground Church

While Julie is a convert — she became Catholic after meeting foreign teachers at her university — Catherine is someone who was Catholic from childhood. She comes from an area in central China where foreign missionaries converted many Chinese generations ago.

“My grandfather became Catholic,” she said. “When we were kids, I really didn’t want to be Catholic. Our parents and neighbors didn’t really understand the Bible. They said, ‘If you don’t pray, the devil will come to you and take you away.’ So we were really scared. We prayed, but we really didn’t know God.”

When she was 7, her parents moved to a neighboring province where a bishop convinced them that if they really wanted to follow Jesus, they needed to be obedient to the pope and resist the government’s pressure to get all Catholics into Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association churches.

“One [underground] priest organized many places, and he didn’t have enough time to go to each place to say Mass every week,” she remembered. “Things had to be done in secret. We had Mass in homes. We didn’t really have a church.”

When she was 15, the police took the priest away for 50 days. “They scattered us and didn’t allow us to learn the Catechism,” Catherine recalled. “They just scared the priest and told him not to have Mass here. But he came back and kept celebrating Mass — very secretly.” 

Youth play in front of St. Joseph’s Church in Beijing. Photo: alanphillips/iStock


The future for Chinese Catholics 

While China has passed new laws on religion, Beijing has begun a new engagement with the Vatican (see “A delicate relationship with China,” near the end of this article). What those developments will lead to in the months and years ahead is anyone’s guess. 

In the meantime, devotees strive to keep the faith. For some, the long-time government policy regarding the number of children parents are allowed to have has implications for the moral life, as well as the future of families and the Church family. Even though limits may be raised or eliminated, the “one-child policy” has left a lasting mark. 

Beijing has begun a new engagement with the Vatican.

Julie and Catherine, who are of childbearing age, both have opinions about it. Even if couples can now have two children, Julie said, some of her colleagues still want to have only one. 

“It costs a lot,” she said. “Even if they say you can have as many as possible, my colleagues would still have only two.”

The primary concern is the cost of rearing a child and giving him or her a good education. But Catherine believes it’s worth it. From a family of seven herself, she likes large families, which she considers a “small community.”

Asked how they care for their spiritual life, Julie and another young woman, Susan, who was Protestant before becoming Catholic, both said they have benefited from going on retreats. Julie recalled being on a three-day retreat at a convent that was led by a Chinese nun. “That benefited me in knowing about myself and my relationship with God,” she said. 

Susan said that on her retreat she came to a deep appreciation for Eucharistic Adoration. “The [Protestant] pastors told us the Eucharist was to remember Jesus,” she said. “The priests told us that the Eucharist is really Jesus.”

A life centered on the Eucharist is important for Catholics anywhere in the world, but in an ongoing struggle between Christianity and “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” it may just be what’s most needed right now in the world’s most populated country. 


In the first decade after the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China, all foreign missionaries were expelled from the country, and hundreds of Chinese Catholics and several bishops were arrested for their loyalty to the pope. Beijing broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1951, and to administer the Church, China established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 1957. But many Catholics preferred to go underground. 

More recently, there have been reports of interaction among members of the Patriotic and underground churches, often blurring lines. 

“You’ve got some who are secretly loyal to Rome even though by day they are part of the government church,” said the American Catholic who has worked in China for 25 years. 

The Vatican hopes that a provisional agreement it signed with the Chinese government last year is a step toward reconciliation. A sticking point has been the Patriotic Church’s insistence on appointing its own bishops. Pope Francis indicated that the nomination of bishops in China would be undertaken collaboratively with Chinese authorities.  (To learn more about the agreement, visit and


Whatever troubles Chinese Catholics face today, they have a long list of holy men and women who have suffered before them. Some are canonized, others not (yet), but all can serve as inspirations for Catholics in China to live faithful lives:

The Martyr Saints of China: 120 men, women, and children who gave their lives for the faith between 1648 and 1930, including 87 native Chinese and 33 foreign missionaries. Canonized by St. John Paul II in 2000.

Bishop Francis Xavier Ford, a Maryknoll missionary from Brooklyn, New York, and bishop of Kaying. He was subjected to brainwashing and torture for 11 months before he died in 1952. The Diocese of Brooklyn has begun a cause for canonization.

Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei of Shanghai was arrested in 1955 after several years of vigorously defending the rights of Catholics to practice their faith without harassment from government authorities. He spent the next 30 years in prison or under house arrest before he was allowed to emigrate to the United States.

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