James W. Harris, a friend of These Stone Walls, writes of the state of the Church in China since a 2018 concordat between Pope Francis and the Communist government.
INTRODUCTION BY FATHER GORDON MACRAE
In September, 2018, Pope Francis signed a concordat with the Communist government of the Peoples Republic of China. The details of the Sino-Vatican agreement have never been published. One of its known tenets, however, allows the Communist government of China to select Catholic bishops in a State-approved Catholic church while the Underground Church that remains loyal to Rome is suppressed.
With this agreement, Pope Francis stands in stark contrast to the papacy of Saint John Paul II whose role in ending Communist rule in Poland is legendary. The Sino-Vatican agreement was signed by Pope Francis one year after a September, 2017 crackdown by the Chinese government enforcing strict requirements on churches and religious adherents of the traditional Church in China.
On Christmas Eve this year, The Wall Street Journal published column by Walter Russell Mead entitled “Pompeo Champions the Faithful” about the Trump administration’s commitment to protecting religious freedom. Mr. Mead wrote:
- “Persecution hangs over beleaguered Christian communities in much of the world… The most alarming developments are taking place in China… China’s Communist rulers are well aware that Christians have led democracy movements in many countries… Some of the most visible leaders of the Hong Kong protests are prominently identified as Christians.”
Thomas Farr, President of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., wrote in “Diplomacy and Persecution in China”, (First Things, May 2019):
- “The assault on religion currently taking place [in China] under President Xi Jinping is the most comprehensive attempt to manipulate and control religious communities since the Cultural Revolution.”
Early in 2017, while living near Shanghai, China, James W. Harris discovered These Stone Walls. At the time, his outreach to us was a sign of Divine Providence. James provided helpful guidance in my efforts to assist a young friend who was stranded and delayed in the ICE deportation system while awaiting documents from the Chinese consulate so he could return to his family in China.
After graduating from Seton Hall University in 2010, James taught English at a bilingual Catholic school in Honduras. Also fluent in Mandarin Chinese, James subsequently spent several years in China where he taught English at the Hua Mao Foreign Language School. It was in China that James met his wife to whom he has been married for over six years. They have a five-year-old son.
While in China, James was also co-founder of Real English Learning, a linguistic organization formed to teach Chinese students the use of English language in business and other real life settings, and also to introduce them to Western Culture. Together, the young family left China and relocated to the United States a year before Pope Francis signed a troubling concordat with the Chinese Communist government.
Since his return from China with his family, James taught religion and Mandarin Chinese at Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey. Today, James works in the technology field as a Senior Sales Development Representative for ThoughtSpot. I invited James to write of his experiences as a Catholic in the Peoples Republic of China. Due to the nature of this post and its first-hand witness, some names, events, and locations are redacted. It is a privilege to bring to our readers the following account from James W. Harris.
CATHOLICS, COMMUNIST CHINA, AND HOPE FOR HONG KONG
The three and a half years I spent in China contain some of the most precious and memorable moments of my life: the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, the study of thousands of years of ancient history, the best boost to my career, and much more… but I have no plans on going back. It is unfortunate to say this about a country and place I view as my second home, though it is true, and the number one reason I am not looking to return to China is the Chinese Communist Party.
To protect the folks to be mentioned in this writing, names and specific locations will not be given. In 2012, after I broke the news to numerous people in the United States that I was about to begin a new adventure in China, several of them became nervous about my safety. They said the Chinese government was dangerous. I shrugged it off, pointing out that many foreigners from around the world were living and working in China.
Yet, while in China, I soon found out from first-hand interviews with the Chinese people the truth about the evil dictatorship of the Chinese Communist government. The first account goes back to the mid-Twentieth Century in central China. A well-liked family owned land and a farm with several hired laborers who helped with the farm work. They received word that Mao Zedong’s army was approaching the area and would kill all landlords and plunder any possessions of value that could be found.
The family began to destroy, hide, and rid themselves of every possession that they owned. They actively made themselves appear as poor as possible so that the army might spare them the fate suffered by thousands of other landowners. From that day forward, they lived an impoverished life for the rest of their lives.
Another story from the same area revolves around a man who founded and became principal of a school. Every person who knew this man while he was alive spoke highly of his integrity and good will. Since the Communist Party controlled all education as well as food distribution at the time, the school received a fixed amount of food that could be distributed to students. The rations were meager and the students were suffering.
After months of bearing with the lack of nutrition, the principal stated in an internal school meeting with his colleagues that “One steamed bun per day is not enough nutrition for the students.” A student who had heard the words of the principal informed on him with the government for being anti-communist. Soldiers came to the school, arrested the principal, and tortured him to death. For decades after this event, students and colleagues who knew the man spoke highly of him and treated his family well.
There are dozens of these stories from the 20th Century to share, but let’s fast forward to 2012 when I arrived in China. Businesses were thriving; food was abundant; cars and Western clothing were seen, and spoken English was heard, throughout the country. There were a large number of Catholic churches in the various places I visited and lived in. I thought this was quite a different Communist regime from the one that previously ruled.
THE CHINESE PATRIOTIC CATHOLIC ASSOCIATION
While in the United States, I heard of the Underground Church in China, but for my first two years there little was spoken of it. The churches had pictures of Pope Benedict XVI and distributed his writings in addition to praying for him at every Mass. They sold Catholic books and Bibles published by a Catholic diocese and not the State-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA).
All seemed well between the Catholic Church in China and the government controlled CPCA until I began to learn what was going on behind the scenes. A parishioner described to me that there are priests, who are “with the Pope” and priests who are “with the government.” “Some people say [this priest in this particular church] is with the government,” the parishioner said.
I had been told by a seminarian that the local seminary had been shut down by the government so his studies were delayed. The government does not recognize seminarians for their academic achievements and forbids societal recognition of their bachelors, masters, or doctorate degrees. The bishop of that diocese was not allowed to celebrate Mass publicly and was forced – until his death – to reside at the seminary without permission to leave.
I also attended a Christmas Eve practice session at a church to be an altar server for the Traditional Latin Mass on Christmas Day. When Christmas Day came, the Novus Ordo in Latin was offered instead. It turned out that the parish priest could not obtain permission from the government to offer Mass in the Extraordinary Form.
It became increasingly evident how government entities controlled the Catholic Church in China. Though far from the style of persecution in decades past, there was an uptick in anti-Catholic and anti-Christian activity by the Chinese government around 2015-2016. A popular Catholic pilgrimage site that I had visited in 2013 was no longer open to pilgrims because the government had closed it down.
This was confirmed by a priest whose cell phone was wiretapped. He was planning a pilgrimage for a group of parishioners, but on the day they were due to leave, the police arrived at the church, interrogated the priest about the pilgrimage, and told him that the group was not permitted to go. It was then that I realized that underground or above ground – all priests in China are subject to being persecuted at any time.
It was around this same time that the “de-crossing” saga began. Thousands of crosses were forcibly removed by police from the steeples and facades of churches. Apparently, a government official was jealous after seeing crosses from Christian churches present in the skyline of one area so he ordered that all crosses be removed. Thus began outright persecution of Christians and their churches in broad daylight. Parishioners who resisted were beaten or arrested. There was little they could do.
A song then began to be sung in Christian churches throughout China: “The Cross Is My Glory.” I remember singing that hymn in a church where the priest was afraid to leave lest the government show up to remove the cross from the rooftop of his church. This was not even the saddest event at that time. I received news that the body of a priest in the Underground Church was found in a river. This was the lowest that things could go, and I began seeking employment in the U.S. not long after these events took place.
- [Editor’s Note: It was at this time that Mr. Harris contacted Father MacRae through These Stone Walls, but he was not able to be candid then about what he had encountered in China.]
How could the Chinese Communist Party commit such grievous sins against its own people? Many may not realize it, but the Chinese government professes and embraces atheism. In order to become a member of the Chinese Communist Party, or to work for the government, one must openly and publicly adhere to atheist beliefs. Although some government officials are secretly Christian most are not and work to further the Communist agenda.
This is why I could not disagree more with the decision of Pope Francis to recognize Catholic bishops appointed by the Chinese Communist government instead of by the Vatican. What kind of bishops does the Communist Party elect? Are they bishops who would speak out against forced abortions, the killing of priests, the forced removal of crosses from churches? No. The Chinese Communist Party appoints as bishops atheists who agree to further the Communist agenda in China.
About a year ago, police began showing up in local villages throughout China. They had a two-part agenda. First, it was made illegal for parents to bring their children to church. Second, fires were started and villagers were ordered to throw their Bibles into the fires. Arrests would be made any time there was a failure to comply. This was confirmed to me by a Chinese person forced to throw a Bible into the fire.
HOPE FOR HONG KONG
It is not by accident that we arrive today in 2020 Hong Kong where millions of people have been protesting in the streets over the last year against the overreaching arm of the Chinese Communist government. While those in mainland China have suffered decades of hiding from the government – hiding their faith, burying their Catholic objects, and having Masses offered secretly in their homes – Hong Kong up to this point had not suffered the same fate as the protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
For the people of Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party is more of an external force than an internal one. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are permitted in Hong Kong while barred in the rest of China. A visa is required for U.S. citizens to travel to China, but not so for Hong Kong. The list of differences between life in mainland China and that in Hong Kong is extensive. It should be no surprise that the current protests arose as China began to impose more laws on the people of Hong Kong.
Every Catholic who has been frustrated with the rise of religious persecution in China over recent years must pray for the success of the people of Hong Kong in this conflict. The alternative would be the same fate as the murdered underground priest multiplied a thousand times over the course of many years.
Hope and pray for the freedom of the Chinese people to own private property, to be educated and employed without government tyranny, and to practice the fullness of Catholic faith openly. This will not come from Beijing – neither the government nor the people. The majority of the good people of China have had their spirit of protest wiped out after decades of murder, mind control and oppression.
If anyone in China develops the spirit to resist the evil of Communist tyranny, a physical beating would be the most favorable outcome. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is a rallying point for anyone who believes that an atheistic and tyrannical government must be stopped.
Unfortunately, the events in Hong Kong are suppressed throughout the rest of China and cannot be viewed by the people there. However, there are many Chinese Americans who are hoping and praying for Hong Kong so that their heritage and former home in China may become a place of faith and freedom.
What lessons can we learn from China? How much do we tolerate evil behavior in our own country? What do we do when there is a small or large injustice committed against our faith and our freedom?
The stories I have shared in this writing took place in China, one particular country. Yet, there are forms of atheism, Communism, and many worse ideologies in every country across the globe where followers of those beliefs try to suppress religious freedom. Catholics must work harder than them all to put into practice the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Holy Church.
Thank you for reading, and God bless you.
+ + +
Editor’s Note: Visit James W. Harris on LinkedIn
Notes from Father Gordon MacRae: I am most grateful to James Harris for this outstanding and important post. Please share it on your social media as a sign of hope for the people of Hong Kong and those in mainland China who will not be permitted to read it.
These Stone Walls was once cited by Today’s Martyrs for original reporting on the suppression of human rights for a specific population: Catholic priests. I invite you to visit Today’s Martyrs for a periodic report on the suppression of rights in China and throughout the world.
You may also like these related posts from These Stone Walls:
- The Once and Future Catholic Church
- A New Saint for Religious Liberty: Viva Christo Rey!
- The Beatification of Pope John Paul II: When the Wall Fell
- The Divine Mercy Canonization of Saint John Paul II