Ever since 1996, each year in May the tiny village of Donglu near the city of Baoding in the Hebei Province, just a few hours by car from Beijing, is invaded by thousands of soldiers. The military surrounds the village and isolates it from the rest of the world in order to stop “illegal assemblies” from happening — at least, this is the official explanation.
You would immediately think that there must be some kind of political gathering opposing the government. But instead, the gathering that Beijing fears in this case is quite different.
In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion (the Boxers — literally the “Pugilists of Harmony and Justice” — a secret Chinese society that directed the rebellion against Westerners and Christianity from 1899–1901) it is said that the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of Christ, appeared in this village under the title of Our Lady of China. After the apparition, a church was constructed that was consecrated in the 1930s as the National Shrine of Our Lady of China and was approved by Pope Pius XI (1857–1939) as a place of pilgrimage. Pilgrimages were temporarily suspended after the destruction of the church during the Second World War, but they began again after the completion of the new cathedral in 1992.
It is said that Mary appeared again in 1995, this time during the annual celebrations that take place in May. This apparition was witnessed by more than 30,000 people. The Chinese Communist Party (PCC) saw this phenomenon as a very serious threat. The next day, the police shut down all activities around the apparition site and made the pilgrims leave on their buses. Since 1996, each May the government closes off access to the village with soldiers to prevent the people from gathering. The church where (clandestine) Catholics had been gathering was destroyed during the first blockade of the pilgrimage in 1996.
And yet, despite more than 20 years of persecution and the destruction of their church, the clandestine Catholics of Donglu have remained firm in their faith. The village is said to be 90% Catholic. The journalists from Bitter Winter arrived at Donglu to find hundreds of faithful people gathered on a street in front of a makeshift altar where a priest of the underground Church was celebrating Mass. Defying the bitter cold, the faithful knelt in silence. The congregation included 2-year-old babies as well as elderly people of 80 or 90 years old.
One elderly Catholic man said that he has attended Mass in the open for more than 20 years without interruption, even in case of wind, rain or snow.
“After the church was destroyed in 1996,” he said, “the members of the church built a simple meeting place. But even this was knocked down by the government. After this, we were forced to move from one place to another in secret in order to celebrate the Mass. We have been doing that for more than 20 years.”
Winter in northern China is particularly cold. On the day the reported from Bitter Winter arrived, the temperature was minus-7 degrees Celsius (about 19 degrees Fahrenheit). The majority of the crowd shivered for an hour, standing and kneeling. When they were asked why they didn’t build another meeting place, one replied: “We cannot build it. The government will not permit it. As soon as it will be half-built, they will tear it down.”
Donglu became one of the most famous centers of Marian devotion in mainland China, drawing tens of thousands of faithful after Pope Pius XI approved the village as a place of national pilgrimage in 1937. The faithful underground Catholics of the neighboring village of Xiezhuang were also persecuted. The faithful gathered in makeshift shelters, but the government often demolished these simple huts.
The local Catholics brought the reporter from Bitter Winter to a simple and rough meeting place. The faithful erected a shed in the corner of an old abandoned building, with nothing surrounding them to protect them from the wind and rain. With temperatures regularly below minus-10 Celsius (about 14 Fahrenheit), adults and children must wear layers of warm clothing in order to assist at Mass. “Even the simple place here was torn down many times,” a powerless believer said. “If we rebuild it, in a short time the government will demolish it yet again.”
Despite such a difficult environment, these faithful of the clandestine Church are not willing to obey the PCC and adhere to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). A priest of the CPCA in the village of Donglu has revealed that, ever since the agreement between the Vatican and China was signed in 2018, any church that does not adhere to the state-controlled CPCA will be closed — an interpretation of the provisional agreement that the Chinese authorities continue to insist on. The priests and bishops whom the government considers disobedient risk being arrested and imprisoned.
This priest advised priests and faithful of the clandestine churches: “Today, in these chaotic times, everyone is fighting for survival. Whether it is on the surface or underground, as long as the government permits us to adore God, this is sufficient.” The underground Catholic Church is not in agreement with such observations. A clandestine priest said to us: “What does ‘not believing’ mean? What does ‘believing’ mean? If the people just wanted to get by, there would not have been so many martyrs since ancient times.”
It’s a beautiful story of faith and courage, isn’t it? It is stories such as these that make it impossible to understand the behavior of the Holy See in signing an agreement — a secret agreement — with the worst dictatorship in the world, and above all keeping it secret. A secret pact with a despotic government gives it a free hand to interpret the agreement as it likes, without there being any possibility of appealing to international public opinion, the one form of pressure possible in the case of a state that is deprived of means such as the Holy See. And it deprives the Holy See of the possibility of defending the faithful in Rome. At any rate, what needs to be verified is if all this was intended by Vatican diplomats. In order not to be complicit in what is happening to Chinese Christians, the Holy See must reveal the text of the agreement.