Rome (AsiaNews) – Christmas 2020 in China was one of many difficulties. The usual restrictions under the new norms on religious activities were heightened by anti-Covid measures: small numbers of participants, safe distance between the faithful, temperatures, sanitization of spaces etc … Some churches were closed; others visited by police and local religious affairs directors. AsiaNews spoke with some faithful and priests from different parts of China to hear about their Christmas. Members of the official and underground communities responded. Everyone was left with the impression that the anti-Covid security measures are being exploited to suffocate the life of communities: “Apparently – they say – they will only be happy when the churches are all empty”.
Meanwhile, on social media a photo of a form covered in stamps (at least 12, see photo 2) has gone viral: it was an application to be able to celebrate Christmas mass in the parish of Taihu, in Wuxi, in Jiangsu. The parish is a registered, official church. But in order to have the Christmas Mass, he had to ask and receive permission from at least eight offices!
In recent days, AsiaNews had presented the testimony of a priest from the official community, who stated that the regime’s measures seem to want to cancel the joy of Christmas. “However – concludes one of the testimonies presented here – the birth of Messiah is a source of comfort and joy for us”.
Father Giovanni (North China)
This year, the Covid epidemic has had an impact on the organization of the Christmas mass. I care for two parishes that are relatively distant from each other. One of them is in a village where not all of the families are Christian. The year the church opened, residents denounced us because the midnight mass disturbed them. So, since then, we have held midnight mass earlier in this parish, and then rushed to the other. During the Christmas mass the two parishes are always full of people. The Committee of the village in which this parish is located sends on the local leaders’ orders, staff to check, photograph and subsequently report and report to their superiors every year. Mass gatherings are not allowed this year, and so they asked us in advance, suggesting that it would be better not to celebrate mass at night to the head of the parish (堂 区 会长), otherwise the church could be closed. The manager spoke with me to cancel the midnight mass, celebrating only a vigil Mass before the great Vigil. And so, in this parish we only celebrated two Christmas Eve masses. The other parish suffers fewer restrictions, but it was still necessary to limit the number of participants, so we celebrated three Vigil Masses, based on the approximate number of faithful in previous years. On the second Sunday of Advent, we asked everyone to register for the mass they wanted to attend; each person was allowed to participate only in one. The faithful are very understanding towards the organization of the parish and have signed up for mass following the regulations. Although this year was not as solemn and lively as the past years, nothing has diminished the peace and salvation that the birth of Jesus brings with it. Furthermore, offering more celebrations changed the style of participation. In the past, many of the faithful came only to assist passively; this year more faithful were able to participate in the choir, in the readings and in the celebration, with a deeper sense of participation. This is perhaps “the good God draws from evil”.
Anna (Western China)
Days ago, the religious authorities announced that, for “security” reasons the Christmas Vigil could not go ahead. The county government and the village committee yesterday sent word that there should be no extra activities during Christmas. I told them we should organise it like a Sunday. To avoid any conflict with them, we brought the mass forward to the afternoon [on the eve] and asked parents not to bring the children. Certain that having already come the day before, they would not come again, I thought that we could celebrate the feast in peace. For many faithful, the afternoon mass was the first opportunity to go to church this year. The building was almost full and everyone wore a mask, after measuring the temperature. The night before, I had hardly slept, begging the Lord to let us spend this Christmas in peace to. Instead, when the ceremony was about to end, the director of the Religious Affairs Office showed up. Our parish is a cultural heritage; so, during the functions, I close the entrance door so as not to be disturbed by tourists. And even that afternoon I closed, avoiding two waves of tourists, making them wait and postponing the visit to the end of the celebration. When the director of the Religious Affairs Office knocked, I thought they were tourists, and I waited a few minutes before opening. When I opened, the manager was furious accusing me of not wanting to let him in. I told him that for the prevention of the epidemic, I did not let tourists in. But he was still very angry and fell into the church without a mask. I asked him to wait for the priest to come out, but he insisted and began to say that the distance between the faithful was less than a meter; that there were too many people; that tomorrow they would come to the town hall to check, to give directives on the allowed number of faithful, and only give permission for mass early in the morning …
Then our pastor came out and he continued with the same words as before; he said he was concerned that senior city officials might have something to say. The priest replied: If leaders have no objection, can they still be called leaders? He may have thought it meant him personally and went away recommending we reduce the number of participants, keeping our distance, paying attention to protective measures, etc. In truth, we all know that the epidemic has now become an excellent pretext. Apparently, they will only be happy when the churches are all empty.
Augustine (Eastern China)
The situation with us is not very different from past years. Every Christmas the police come to keep order, apparently nothing is noticed. But one year, a young priest who perhaps was newly arrived, during the Vigil procession deviated slightly from the allowed itinerary, prolonging the procession a little. He was caught on camera and had to write a letter of apology. Since then there have been no more processions.
Father Wang (North China)
To prevent the spread of the epidemic, some of our parishes have been closed for Christmas and we have not celebrated the rite publicly. The bishop together with the priests went to visit the faithful. They have spent all of these days going to the parishes where the Christmas mass was not celebrated, to bring comfort and their company. We are in a remote area and to travel from one parish to another you have to drive 100-200 km a day.
Father Augustine (North China)
Christmas this year was very difficult for the parish where I serve. On the one hand, there are still sporadic positive cases of Covid and we are concerned about protection during the Christmas holidays. On the other hand, we are worried that the authorities are targeting our small parish. However, with the grace of God, our parish spent a peaceful Christmas, celebrated in a private home, despite the very restricted environment. But we are satisfied: many priests of our diocese were unable to celebrate Christmas; the faithful can do nothing but stay at home and pray. Already a few days before Christmas, some parishes received threats and warnings from the authorities, informing them of the ban on celebrating. In other parts the police even came to check the movements of the parish; some priests were forced to flee on the night of the Vigil. It is a very embarrassing situation.
The renewal of the Sino-Vatican Agreement has not brought us greater space for our survival. Indeed, the authorities have opened several courses for priests of the underground Church to “brainwash” them, or to threaten them with blocking their pastoral ministry. However, the birth of the Messiah is a source of comfort and joy for us, it is the strength that keeps us holding on to the principles of faith. May the light pierce the darkness of the world, the peace of Christ be with us all, I wish you a Merry Christmas, the grace of the Lord be with you always!
Father Giacomo (Eastern China)
On December 21st, I invited two nuns to help out my parish for Christmas. When they arrived they organized rehearsals for Christmas activities, songs and parish decorations. A few days earlier I celebrated confessions with the village faithful. On the afternoon of the 24th, the faithful from the other village came to participate in the solemnity and I confessed them too. Between 6.30 and 7.30 on the evening of Christmas Eve, a small Christmas party was organized, lasting about an hour, in which the faithful entertained us, the sisters dressed up as Santa Claus distributing gifts to the faithful, organizing a catechism competition: whoever gave the correct answer, obtained a small sacred object. At 8 the welcome ceremony for the Child Jesus began. The musical group in the lead, then the concelebrants, the celebrant, the Child, the choir, the faithful, all together went around the village, singing while we made the procession. Once in the church, the priest placed the child in the crib and celebrated the blessing ceremony of the crib and the tree. Then the Christmas Eve mass began (in previous years it was at 11pm; this year the ceremony was brought forward). All the faithful wore masks, keeping one meter away from each other during mass. At 5.30 am on the 25th, we celebrated the Dawn Mass; at 9 am that of the day, at the end of which the anointing of the sick to the elderly faithful and the sick is celebrated. At 2 pm I arrived at the other parish to hear confessions, celebrate Mass and the anointing of the sick for the elderly or ill. Thanks be to God, everything took place peacefully!