The village of God

Source:Global Times Published: 2011-4-21 21:23:00

By Wang Fanfan in Shanxi

It's 5 am Sunday in Liuhe, Shanxi Province, and Yang Chunzhen is already out of bed and preparing for the day ahead. This is a rural farming village but the woman and 5,000 fellow villagers are not rushing out to tend to their crops – they are on their way to the 5:30 am mass at a nearby Catholic church to nourish their souls.

After getting dressed, Yang, 47, a mother of two boys and two girls, goes outside her 13-story apartment building and jumps into a neighbor's van for the short trip to the Liuhe Village Catholic Church for a Palm Sunday Mass.

As the sun rises over the large church, other villagers are pouring into the towering structure. Some are busy parking their SUVs, vans, motorcycles, scooters and tricycles, while others hurry inside to take part in the prayer chant.

At the entrance, women and men automatically split up and enter through separate doors. While facing the altar, women sit on the left pews and men on the right.

Yang goes down one knee, makes a sign of a cross and begins chanting prayers in the local Shanxi dialect with the rest of the congregation.

This routine has been part of her life since 1985 when she married a villager who is also Catholic.

The Liuhe Catholic Church is near a greenhouse in this village hundreds of kilometers from Beijing. But inside, the worshippers could be in any Catholic church in New York, Rome or any other country.

After 20 minutes of chanting, the priest comes out and opens the service, and each of the 5,000 seats is occupied. The service ends with communion where blessed bread is given to everyone on the long line.

The church holds services twice a day, in the morning from 5:30 to 6:30 am and in the evening from 7 to 8:30 pm. On Sundays, there is a larger mass.

The morning mass allows the villagers to have enough time to go to their farms before the sun gets too hot.
This is the largest Catholic church in the Taiyuan diocese and it is home to the largest congregation in the Chinese mainland. Among the 10,000 residents, more than 90 percent call themselves Catholic.

Liuhe, which is 40 kilometers from Taiyuan, is known as the vegetable base of the capital city. Its cabbages and zucchinis enjoy a stellar reputation.


Praying quietly

Here, if a reporter asks someone why they're Catholic, it is considered an odd question because they think they were born Catholic and it remains part of their life forever. The tradition began in the late 18th Century.

Liu Shuzhong, director of the Liuhe church, recalled that his ancestors came to Liuhe 150 years ago.

"It was five generations ahead of me, and I have my children and grandchildren who have been raised with Catholicism as well," Liu said.

The Taiyuan diocese, which has a history of 300 years, has about 90 churches that serve about 80,000 Catholics, according to the Union of Catholic Asian News.

The church has experienced two periods of uncertainty. Most villagers today cannot remember the Boxer Uprising that took place in the late 19th Century when nationalists declared Christianity as a bad influence. They said it translated into too much Western influence over China and smashed it with anger and violence. 

The village of Liuhe, which means six harmonies in Chinese, was given the name in the 1920s. It has a long history of migration and the name also carries a symbolic meaning that suggests it welcomes Catholic believers from six places: east, south, west, north, middle and God gather in Liuhe in harmony.

The long Catholic tradition here shows clear signs of a conservative lifestyle and culture. Local men and women follow the Cannon law: the church does not encourage marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic. 

"Marrying a non-Catholic is considered sin in Liuhe," said Father Wang. "What's worse, it disgraces the family."
Traditional villagers follow the teachings of the Catholic Church in a dogmatic way that opposes any means of contraception.

Having four or five children is normal in the village where the official One Child Policy is not enforced.

Despite new influences and changes across China, the village has preserved some old traditions.  

For example, many boys and girls are allowed to pursue a college degree outside of the village, but here, girls are not allowed to serve at the altar during mass.


Liu, the church's unpaid director for eight years, was elected after a voting process that was opened to every single believer. While the priests are assigned by the larger Taiyuan diocese, the director remains at the church and serves as a link to the worshippers.

During his 66 years in the village, Liu most vividly remembers the cruelty imposed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution(1966-76).

"They tore down the church in August 1966," said Liu. "After that, we stopped discussing faith in public. But we kept saying the prayers at home."

After he graduated from the seminary in Taiyuan, Father Wang Xuyang became head of the congregation in Jiaocheng County under the Fenyang diocese, about 20 kilometers away from Liuhe village.

A Liuhe native, Wang grew up in a devout Catholic family in the 1970s, a period when being a Catholic was not something to brag about.

At primary school, 38 out of Wang's 40 classmates were Catholic, but the teacher was not.

"We were always ridiculed by our teacher that Catholicism was of no use," he said. "I have always doubted the existence of God. I also believed that saying prayers was meaningless."

Due to his father's devotion, Wang had no choice but to wake up at dawn and join him for the 5:30 am mass as a child.

"I was not willing to get up so early and recite all the prayers. But at least 10 minutes of praying every day was required by my parents," Wang said.

Wang now relies on his faith for strength and thinks about his grandmother.

"My grandmother was quite emotional every time she mentions how the family was denounced in the dark years. But I can feel that it is the appreciation of God that underpinned the pain she's been through."

Long tradition

Today, some things haven't changed.

Liu Shuzhong arranged a meeting with Father Zhang Junhai, who presides over the Liuhe church, and he prepared some fruit for the occasion.


When Zhang realized the visitor was a reporter, he abruptly changed his mind.

"It was a report by Phoenix TV years ago that caused them a lot of trouble," said Father Wang. Since then, the priests and village administration have shied away from media attention.

"Now the church director can have different opinions with the priest. It was impossible in the past," Wang said.
Previously, priests served as the sole authority and church directors had to follow their orders. Now, Liu handles all church finances along with four vice-director, who share the duties of running the church.

The first female church director, Sun Qiaoxin, was elected in 2005.

The current church is 15 years old. The original structure was torn down during the Cultural Revolution and most people prayed at home. In 1985, after an unexpectedly good harvest, the village raised enough money to build a new church.

The villagers have a dream that Catholics around the world share.

"We have always wanted to see the Pope and participate in a mass at the Vatican," said Liu Shuzhong. "But it is only until now that we can afford such a dream."

Just before Christmas 2010, Wang and 15 other villagers traveled to Rome where they joined the Christmas vigil mass at St Peter's Cathedral. The trip was expensive for Liu who spent 35,000 yuan ($5,391). The group made stops at the Vatican, Paris, Cologne in Germany and Fátima in Portugal.

"We did not advertise our plan; otherwise I was afraid that more than 50 people would want to come along."

The trip to Europe was also an eye opening experience for them. After they returned, they realized their plan to rebuild the church was flawed.

"Now we take things slowly because we want better quality, instead of fast development," Liu said.

The white marble statues of St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John were newly purchased for 20,000 yuan ($3,080) a piece and will replace the old ones in front of the church.

Sun Yuwen, who was in charge of the construction,said "The European cathedrals have been standing there for hundreds of years. If we cannot build something similar, at least our church needs to stand for a hundred years." 

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