Mary Help of Christians, protector of Chinese Catholics

As Christians celebrate the Feast of Mary Help of Christians on May 24, Catholics are also marking the 13th day of prayer for the Church in China.

May 28, 2021

By Gianni Criveller
As Christians celebrate the  Feast of Mary Help of Christians on May 24, Catholics  are also marking the 13th day of  prayer for the Church in China. Pope  Benedict XVI established it on May  27, 2017 with his letter to Chinese  Catholics. It was celebrated for the  first time the following year when  Pope Benedict composed a special  prayer for Our Lady of Sheshan.

The shrine of Our Lady of  Sheshan, not far from Shanghai and  named after Mary Help of Christians,  is the most popular shrine in China. It  is on top of a hill and many faithful,  climb the hill on their knees, pausing  at the 14 Stations of the Cross.

Unfortunately, since 2008, authorities have prevented many from accessing the shrine during the month  of May. Pilgrims have declined to a  few hundred.

In 2020, due to the pandemic, the  Marian shrine was closed. It remains  closed this year despite a nearby golf  club and playground being open to  the public and visited by thousands  of people. The pandemic has been  used in China and Hong Kong as a  convenient excuse to severely curtail  the lives of Catholic communities.

The closure of the shrine has become a symbol of the lack of freedom of the Church in China. In the  nearby seminary, Bishop Thaddeus  Ma Daqin of Shanghai has been  under house arrest for almost nine  years. The 53-year-old bishop was  arrested on July 7, 2012, the evening  of his ordination, for renouncing the  state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

The Diocese of Shanghai remains  without a guide, since the bishop  cannot communicate with his faithful. Political authorities have reduced  Bishop Ma to a “presbyteral state,”  purportedly to invalidate his episcopal ordination.

One can only imagine the solitude  and isolation of the bishop. Perhaps  he finds consolation in the thought  that the shrine is just a few metres  away. This is one of the most difficult times for Catholics in China in  the last 40 years. Religious politics  in China is increasingly oppressive,  leaving little hope for improvement.

The trust of Chinese Catholics in  Mary’s help does not diminish despite the difficulties. In fact, there  were difficult moments in the past  when Catholics experienced the protection of the Mother of God. And,  honouring that, I would like to offer  here a brief description of Marian devotion in China.

Mary is honoured by various titles in China

Our Lady of the Eastern Syrian Church
Christianity entered China in 635  AD, thanks to the missionaries of the  Eastern Syrian Church. Coming from  Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the metropolitan  seat of the Assyrian Church (near  present-day Baghdad), they reached  Xi’an, then the capital of China. Buddhist monks were translating  the sutras of the Buddha’s teaching  into Chinese. The two faiths, Buddhism and Christianity, met and interacted. Christianity took the name  of “luminous teaching”; Chinese  Buddhism came out with Guanyin,  the popular goddess of mercy, which  is somewhat similar, both from an  iconographic and doctrinal point of  view, to the figure of the Virgin Mary.

Luke Chen’s Christian visual culture
After the unfortunate outcome of the  Chinese rites controversy (1742), the  path of cultural accommodation was  abandoned. It was resumed in the  twenties of the last century, thanks  to Celso Costantini, Pope Pius XI’s  delegate to China. He did much to promote the inculturation of Christianity in the  country. He inspired the founding  of a school for Chinese Christian  art at Fujen University in Beijing.  Luke Chen is the best-known artist  to reproduce the sacred persons in  Chinese style. Particularly famous  are his Madonnas, which some perplexed Catholics thought looked too  much like the Buddhist Guanyin.

The Chinese Madonna of the  North Church of Beijing
Not all Catholics felt the need to have  a Chinese Madonna to feed their devotion. The beautiful image of Mary  Empress of China in the Northern  Church in Beijing is an example of  this. The oil painting by a contemporary artist from Hong Kong depicts  Mary and the baby Jesus in colourful and luxurious imperial robes,  dominated by yellow. Some Beijing  Catholics expressed the opinion that  Mary, not being Chinese, should not  be artificially represented as Chinese.

The Madonna of the Franciscans
Roman Catholicism arrived in Beijing in 1292 thanks to Franciscan  missionary John of Montecorvino  and other Franciscan missionaries  who followed him. A portrait of the  Madonna with child, dated 1342, belongs to the Franciscan period. It was  found with other Christian cultural  objects in the city of Yangzhou. The  Madonna was portrayed in Chinese  style as accommodation was a “cultural imperative.”

The Madonna by Matteo Ricci
Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, father of Chinese Catholicism, in January 1601 entered the Forbidden City  of Beijing. He presented 16 gifts to  the Wanli emperor, including a copy  of the image of Maria Salus Populi  Romani, traditionally attributed to St  Luke. The Society of Jesus was particularly fond of this image, which  is located in the Church of St Maria  Maggiore in Rome, due to the devotion of Ignatius of Loyola to it.

Ricci himself was very devoted to  the Madonna. As a child, he had visited the shrine of the Holy House in  Loreto, not far from Macerata (Italy).  He published four sacred images, including a Madonna of Seville, which  was later a model for other Chinesestyle reproductions.

In 1619, nine years after Ricci’s  death, Portuguese missionary João  da Rocha published in Nanjing, The  Method of the Rosary, a beautiful  Chinese-style illustrated book that  introduces the faithful to the 15 mysteries of Marian prayer.

In 1637, Giulio Aleni, a Jesuit  missionary from Brescia, published  56 images in The Illustrated Life of  the Lord of Heaven Incarnate, with  many depictions of the Virgin Mary.  The last woodcut of Aleni’s illustrative sequence is particularly suggestive: the Chinese people witness the  Coronation of the Virgin Mary, now  part of the universal Church.

Our Lady of Lourdes
The Catholic people of China love  the Virgin Mary very much. Through  Marian images, the faithful have  been able to affirm their distinctive  identity and overcome difficult circumstances and tumultuous historical upheavals. The faith survived in  the dark years of persecution thanks  to some fundamental devotions: to  the Sacred Heart, to Our Lady and  to the pope.

The cult of Our Lady of Lourdes  has spread widely thanks to the devotion of European missionaries,  especially French ones, who were  very numerous in China in the second half of the 19th century and the  first half of the 20th century.

There is no church in China that  does not have a grotto or a statue  remembering the apparitions of  Lourdes. The devotion to Our Lady  of Fatima also spread considerably.

Donglu’s story
Two images and shrines of Our Lady  are most loved by Chinese Catholics.  They are both dedicated to Mary  Help of Christians as both shrines  originated from Mary’s intervention  to protect Christians.

Donglu’s story begins in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion. The Catholic village of Donglu, 40  kilometres from Baoding in the province of Hebei, was surrounded by  thousands of rioters ready for a massacre. The 700 faithful and their priest  invoked the Virgin Mary, certain that  their death was imminent.

Catholic chronicles then narrate  that a woman, surrounded by light  appeared, making the rebels withdraw. A church was built to thank the  Virgin Mary for her protection. An  image of the Dowager Empress Cixi  in imperial dress was used as a model  to portray the Madonna and Child.

In 1924, the bishops of China, gathered in the Synod of Shanghai, established Donglu Church as a shrine.  The image and the church became  a popular pilgrimage destination. In  1932, Pius XI approved the cult and  the shrine. Destroyed by the Japanese  in 1941, the shrine was rebuilt and  enlarged between 1989 and 1992 and  dedicated to Mary Help of Christians.

Thousands of faithful, including  four bishops and 100 priests, reported  that on May 23, 1995, on the eve of  the Feast of Mary Help of Christians,  an extraordinary movement of the  sun took place at the Donglu shrine.  The reported event would make people think of the “miracle of the sun”  in Fatima on Oct 13, 1917.

Since then, security authorities  have prevented the faithful from  making pilgrimages to Donglu. The  devotion of the people sometimes  managed to evade the restrictive  measures, and many went to the  shrine, which is located in an area  where underground Catholic communities are strong.

Our Lady of Sheshan
The story of Our Lady of Sheshan  begins in 1863 with the purchase of  the hill of Sheshan by the French Jesuits. On March 1, 1868, the bishop of  Shanghai, Adrien Languillat, consecrated the chapel and blessed the image of Our Lady Help of Christians,  modelled after Our Lady of Victory  in Paris.

In September 1870, the bloody revolt of the Tai Ping Army arrived in  Shanghai and the Catholic community was in grave danger. The superior of the Chinese Jesuit community,  Fr Gu Zhensheng, vowed to build  a Marian church on top of Sheshan  Hill if the Virgin Mary would protect  them. And so it happened. On May  24, 1871, in the presence of thousands of faithful, the new church was  initiated. It was consecrated in 1873.

The church, 56 metres long, 25  metres wide and 17 metres high  with a 38-metre bell tower, was built  thanks to the generosity of Catholics. It is considered the first Marian basilica in East Asia. Our Lady  of Sheshan became the protector of  the Shanghai church. In 1874, Pius  IX granted an indulgence to pilgrims  who visit the shrine during the month  of May. In 1894, a second Marian  church was built halfway up the hill.

In 1924, papal delegate Celso  Costantini convened the first Chinese synod in Shanghai. A painting  of the Mother of God with child was  commissioned and was placed in the  shrine. This image continues to be  highly revered, enshrined atop the  basilica’s main high altar. It was then  that the annual pilgrimages began,  making it the most important Catholic pilgrimage destination in China.

During the Cultural Revolution  (1966-76), the original statue was  destroyed. In April 2000, Bishop  Aloysius Jin Luxian commissioned a  new statue: the standing Virgin Mary  raises the baby Jesus above her head  with her arms outstretched in a cross  gesture. The dragon, with a trident  tail, is crumpled by the Virgin Mary’s  feet.

The May 24 prayers by Catholics  in China and from all around the  world are ideally conveyed to this  shrine. ––

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