Underground and Official Catholics prepare themselves for Christ's birth

China Aid Association
by Chang Huaide
Elderly forced to travel up to 50 km to attend mass; priests careful to avoid arrest; checkpoints even in official churches. But Christmas is spreading and fast becoming a feast loved by the Chinese.

Beijing (AsiaNews) — For many underground Catholics there will be no Christmas mass: there bishops are under house arrest, as are many priests.  As a result the only way they have of celebrating the Jesus’ birth is to gather together and listen to the mass transmitted by Vatican Radio.  The lack of priests, (and of freedom) in many areas in China, forces many to travel up to 50 km to attend midnight mass.
Chinese Catholics divide themselves into 3 categories according to the different levels of devotion: those who pray every day; those who go to mass every Sunday; those who attend mass during the 4 principal feasts of the year, Easter, Pentecost, the Assumption and Christmas.  But above all Christmas sees the greatest participation.  Catholics from the Official and Underground Church prepare themselves during Advent with special prayer groups, confessions and novena’s, and by preparing the Christmas hymns.
The economic opening of China has led to Christmas becoming an accepted and loved holiday.  Christmas trees are on sale in the major cuties and countryside, as will as nativity scenes and greeting cards.
In the cities, Catholic universities are increasingly in number and they organize carol singing and nativity plays for the night of December 24th.  In numerous parishes, above all those in poorer rural areas, collections are made to help those in need or gifts are gathered for the poor children.  Many prepare banners or red cards, with the greeting “Merry Christmas” to hang on their doorposts, echoing a tradition of the Chinese New Year.
But even at Christmas an atmosphere of persecution and control prevails.  In official communities, during Christmas mass — above all the midnight vigil, invaded by university students many non Christian —it has become a tradition to limit participation with the introduction of entrance tickets.  There are some who claim it is only a question of security and order, to avoid crowd control problems during the celebration.  But in reality it is a method to stop new entries: tickets are only given to those who can prove they belong to a registered Catholic family.
Even Chinese police give great importance to surveillance during Christmas.  This is why the underground communities are so careful: they prepare the mass in private homes, or in warehouses rented for the occasion. In some areas in the countryside — where local authorities hate the church — the faithful transfer elsewhere, they move to other villages using all available means of transport: buses, tractors, cars.  For these night-time “excursions” all that is needed for the celebration of mass is brought along as well as for the party which will take place after, with sweetmeats and fruit.
The Christmas period is the most dangerous for underground priests because they have a higher risk of arrest.  An elderly woman who has to travel over 50 km to participate in mass comments: “When will this persecution end? We only want to be able to practice our faith in freedom.  In all of these years, even without freedom, we have always prayed that our political leaders will allow Christmas to be celebrated with joy in China”.

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