China: 10,000 ‘Underground’ Catholics Celebrate Opening of Holy Door

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Some 10,000 faithful from the underground Catholic Church in China gathered at the Zhengding Cathedral on the third Sunday of Advent to celebrate the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy and the opening of the Holy Door.

Local Catholics are speaking of a “miracle” that the police, who were patrolling in the vicinity of the church, allowed the December 13 gathering to take place without arresting anyone. Technically the underground Church is an illegal institution and authorities of the Communist party routinely arrest people who take part in its activities.

Moreover, the festive liturgy, which lasted from 8:30 am until 12:30 pm, was presided over by Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo, an 81-year-old prelate who has been under house arrest since 2010 for refusing to join the Patriotic Association, remaining instead faithful to the Pope.

The Patriotic Association is the Communist Party-sanctioned parallel “Catholic” organization in China that is independent of Rome. Since 1958 China’s Catholic Church has been split into underground and open communities, with the latter going by the title of the Patriotic Catholic Association with direct ties to the Communist party.

A Vatican document of 1988 barred Roman Catholics from participating in the sacraments of the Patriotic Church, since it had “broken all relationships with the pope” and would be “under the direct control of the government.”

In 1988, Pope Benedict XVI reached out to Catholics in China with an open letter, in which he praised their faithfulness, encouraged their perseverance, and laid out new guidelines for the life of the Church in China.

Bishop Jia Zhiguo, who lives next to the Cathedral of Zhengding, is under round-the-clock surveillance by state officials and is often taken away for a week or two of mandatory “vacation,” including reeducation courses and Communist indoctrination.

One religious sister present at the Zhengding Holy Year festivities said it was “amazing” that so many people could be together for so long without anyone being arrested. Along with the uniformed officers, there were undoubtedly plainclothes police mingling with the crowd, she said, “yet nothing happened.”

The solemn opening of the Holy Door in Zhengding began with a procession followed by a series of readings including Misericordiae Vultus, the letter from Pope Francis that proclaimed the Jubilee Year. A solemn Mass followed the opening of the door.

For years, the Chinese government has attempted to eliminate the unregistered, underground Christian communities, declaring them guilty of criminal activities. Priests and bishops involved are regularly imprisoned. In recent months, the government has increased pressure on underground priests to join the Patriotic Association, offering incentives as well as threatening punishment for non-compliance.

Despite his negative status with authorities, Bishop Jia Zhiguo enjoys great esteem among the local population. For years the bishop hosted 200 abandoned children and people with disabilities in his own home, taking care of them along with the help of some nuns and lay faithful.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter@tdwilliamsrome