Yes Virginia, there is religion in China! This Catholic church is one of two Cathedrals in Beijing. St. Mary's Cathedral, was founded in 1601. The first Cathedral was built in 1649 and burnt down in the early 1900s. This one was built in 1904. There are Masses in both English and Chinese.

There are three Masses in Chinese and one in English. The capacity seemed to be about 150-200. Given a non-active population of a church is about 2-3 times the Sunday crowd, I'd guess about 3000 members. There are about 5,000,000 Catholics in China.

I asked the Priest, who presides over the Mass I attend, about this Cathedral and he wasn't too flattering about it...difficulties in hearing the Choir and understanding the Priest. We have about 150 or so that attends the same Mass that I do...different from the Cathedral. After our Mass, there's a French Mass. I've also attended Mass held by a Philippino Priest.

I've seen features on the Cathedrals on CNN and heard about it from a couple who normally attend the same Mass I do. This is what stirred my curiosity about the place. The other day, a friend told me the location of the Cathedral so my friend and I scouted it out.

My impression of religion around here is that all is cool until you try and recruit members or preach against the government. The Falon Gong is one example of religion that is frowned upon in China. When these pictures were taken, FG was in the news having a convention in Hong Kong trying to attract media attention to their plight. Hong Kong is one of the few places the FG can freely congregate. There are a few other places as well but for the most part, the FG is persona non grata.

This Cathedral is very convenient....just a stone throw away from the subway. We missed the right stop by one so we braved the cold and walked about three long blocks to the next stop.

As promised, I did go to Mass at St. Mary's Cathedral. There are so many interesting thoughts so logic says to start at the beginning. I went with a friend and we arrived just as Mass was starting. It wasnít hard to find a seat as the church was a third full. Iíd guess that around a hundred or so folks were there.

It was cold inside the church as the initial omen was that the Holy Water that we use to anoint ourselves was frozen. We could see our breath throughout the ceremony and nobody removed their coat. The priest was kind enough to point out the blatantly obvious stating that he was cold.

The priest was very fluent in English. At one point in his sermon, he mentioned doing work in a foreign land. Iím not sure but I think it was England.

The hymns that were sung seemed typical to me...typical as finding people knowing the words of songs in non-native tongues. Generally, I find that when one sings a song in a foreign tongue, they may know the words and the melody but they donít know the meaning of what they are singing. Remember foreign songs in foreign languages that became popular in the US...the ones you sang along with but were clueless as to what they meant. I didnít get to test my theory on the choir members but Iíd bet big money that none of them could speak any English. It takes a strong knowledge of English to sing and understand it...especially impromptu singing or speaking. They sang the songs at a really fast tempo. The organ and the poor acoustics of the building made hearing difficult. It was difficult to sing along. I recognized one song. They seemed to sing quite well. Not many people in the pews were singing along.

The prayers were another matter. The Profession Of Faith is a very long prayer. The tempo was very slow and my brain was screaming in frustration for these folks to get to the next word. Most of the prayers were like that.

The readings were done in English and in French. I found out that the early morning Mass is done in traditional Latin. They were the same readings I heard the day before at the Mass I normally attend.

They surprised me by mentioning Pope John-Paul. As I wrote in earlier letters, the Chinese Catholics have no association with the Vatican because the Pope has said positive things about the Dali Lama and Tibet...all part of Taiwan which broke away from China many years ago. China deems is still Taiwan to be part of China and anyone like the Dali Lama who thinks otherwise is persona non grata. Iím also told that part of the rift is that the Vatican appoints the Bishops and the Chinese government wants that duty. They considered the Vatican to be meddling in their affairs. The severance took place in 1956.

During many parts of the Mass, the priest seemed to coach the people on what to do telling us to sit or stand as Mass dictated. To veteran Catholics like myself, itís almost instinct...you just know.

Communion was a free for all type experience. Many nationalities, including China, arenít taught about lines. Youíll find them butting into line wherever you go. They donít give it a second thought. In most Catholic churches, there are ushers who motion the patrons to rise and enter the aisle for Communion. No ushers were to be found so the patrons bolt to the front in hopes that theyíll be there first. Relax folks, youíll either have to wait in line or wait in your pew until everyone has had Communion...no sense in rushing.

In my years of receiving Communion, itís come in two forms...broken up unleavened bread similar to bread that one eats at the table or the thin wafer that is mass produced. Here, the Host is almost paper thin and semi-transparent.

The computer generated prayer books (Missallettes sp(?)) were being picked up by the youths before Mass was even over.

Overall, the Mass was a traditional Mass like the ones Iíve participated in on the journeys Iíve made. My priest says itís exactly the same Mass as it is worldwide...even the Chinese version. If Iím here during the summer...fat chance but if I am...Iíll be back as the Mass at the Canadian Embassy is not held during the summer months but I donít plan on going to both Mass at the Cathedral and at the Canadian Embassy.

Iíd hoped to get in some more photos while the lights were on inside the church but as soon as Mass was over, the lights went off. Like the heat, it was another sign of economizing.

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