Faith Near to Heaven
A century and a half ago, French priests brought Catholicism to
the Tibetan plateau. There it has endured, despite war, Maoism and
By HENRY CHU
TIMES STAFF WRITER
CIZHONG, June 11 2002 China -- They arrive on foot each Sunday,
some walking as long as an hour. They come through the doorway in
silence, then kneel, heads bowed, hands folded.
Their prayers to Jesus echo off the cold stone walls; pictures
of the Blessed Virgin gaze down from the church's pillars; the altar
shimmers in the candlelight.
It's a tableau of piety and reverence familiar around the world.
But the thin, high-altitude sunlight that filters through the windows
also reveals the unexpected. There are ceiling tiles painted with
the yin-and-yang symbol of Taoism--a nod to the influence of indigenous
art and culture. Other tiles depict the lotus blossom found in Buddhist
iconography. The worshipers themselves are clad in colorful dress,
the women's heads wrapped in magenta scarves that serve as bright
reminders of who they are.
They are Tibetans. And unlike the vast majority of their people--Buddhist
practically by definition, followers of the Dalai Lama--most Tibetans
of this village in China's Yunnan province are Roman Catholic. In
their elegant church, built by European missionaries a century ago,
they cling to their faith as tenaciously as their homes cling to
the hillsides above the swirling Mekong River, high up on the Tibetan
How this and a few neighboring communities blossomed into unlikely
Christian outposts on the roof of the world is a fascinating tale
of East meeting West and of the enduring power of faith.
As the Catholic Church worldwide searches its soul over allegations
of sexual abuse, the 600 or so believers here continue to go about
their spiritual life untouched by faraway controversies.
Yet they too must struggle to survive, nestled here on majestic
but forbidding mountains that feed into the Himalayas. There is
no resident priest to guide them. Their young have decamped to the
cities. Local officials discriminate against them.
But their faith endures. Through decades of war, privation, internecine
strife and official persecution, the Catholics in this area have
held on to their religion with as much fervor as the Buddhists whose
plight has captured the imagination of so many in the West.
"We believe that neither man nor the government can vanquish
faith," declared Father Tao Zhibin, the young cleric who oversees
the flock scattered throughout the region. "Faith is in your
Cizhong, a village of about 1,000 people, lies in the upper corner
of Yunnan province, just over the border from Tibet proper. On the
edge of the massive Tibetan plateau, northwest Yunnan is home to
about 123,000 ethnic Tibetans.
Only one road leads to Cizhong from the nearest town, three hours
away--a narrow, heart-stopping passage bounded by a rock face on
one side and a sheer drop of hundreds of feet on the other. Rain
frequently washes out the road, piling up boulders that have to
be blasted through with dynamite.
Cizhong's inaccessibility makes it difficult for Tao, who comes
from the distant town of Dali in Yunnan, to visit and celebrate
Mass more than two or three times a year. Christmas, marked by dancing
around a bonfire, gets pushed forward or back from Dec. 25 to accommodate
"Our priest is very precious to us," said Luo Shengcai,
35. "He has to travel hither and yon, so we don't get to see
him very often."
Even the postman comes calling in Cizhong just twice a month.
Yet every week, scores of committed believers gather in the village's
beautiful old church for intimate Sunday services. Men and women
sit on separate sides of the aisle on wooden slats. Sometimes in
unison, sometimes alternating between male and female voices, the
worshipers sing their hymns, Christian lyrics set to traditional
melodies of the Tibetan highlands.
One family's worn little orange hymnal provides a clue to the origins
of this isolated Catholic community. Printed on its frontispiece,
in an old-fashioned typeface, is the title, "Chants Religieux
Thibetains," and the year and place the book was published:
1894, in Rennes, France.
It was nearly 150 years ago that priests from the Foreign Missions
of Paris made their way onto the Tibetan upland, eager to spread
their gospel to what they considered a benighted land.
At the time, Tibet was a feudal kingdom where Buddhist lamas reigned--not
always peaceably--and serfs worked the land, their lives brutish
and short. The Buddhist monasteries were intolerant of outside religions;
foreigners were constantly attacked by brigands. Arson destroyed
the missions built in Cizhong and nearby Deqin; two priests were
murdered in 1905.
Hostility persisted for decades, even after the clerics withdrew
to the border regions between Tibet and China's Yunnan and Sichuan
provinces. In the 1930s, weary of the conflict and bloodshed, the
French fathers turned the area over to the Swiss Mission of St.
Bernard, by order of the pope.
In Cizhong, the Swiss priests ran a school, a seminary and a hospital
for the poor--which meant virtually everybody. On the rippling green
hillsides, they planted barley and grapes from Europe; three families
still harvest the grapes and press them into the wine used for Communion.
Xu Shadu, 69, remembers the Swiss priest who helped heal a gash
in his leg when he was a boy.
"Everyone who was sick would go see him, because it was free,"
Xu recalled. "People would give him eggs or cooking oil. But
if you had nothing to give, then you gave nothing."
Father Alphonse Savioz ministered in Cizhong from 1948 to 1951,
a tense and violent period in Tibetan-Chinese relations that ultimately
resulted in Communist forces' overrunning the Buddhist kingdom.
"Under such conditions [on the Tibet-China border] it was
difficult to do the work of evangelization," said Savioz, who
is now 83 and lives in Taiwan. "In the majority-Chinese areas,
the missions were looted and the fathers stripped of everything,
even the clothes off their backs."
In 1949, one of Savioz's friends, Father Maurice Tornay, was killed,
allegedly at the hands of Buddhist monks. (Tornay was beatified
as a martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1993.) Savioz was hauled in
for repeated interrogation by the advancing Chinese, who expelled
him from the country in 1952, after taking over the whole of Tibet.
For the flock in Cizhong, left leaderless and helpless, the arrival
of the Communists meant the beginning of 30 years of suppression.
Their church, under whose curling eaves many had sought succor
and comfort, was turned into a public assembly hall. Communist propaganda
performances were staged where the altar had stood and where priests
had once blessed the wine and the bread.
Parishioners accustomed to kneeling in prayer were forced instead
to bow to Maoism. Bibles and other religious materials had to be
kept hidden in their homes. The authorities substituted daily Masses
with frequent ideological "struggle sessions" designed
to reform "misguided" thinking. Some believers, such as
Luo Shengcai's grandfather, were even shipped to labor camps.
During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Cizhong's church was spared
destruction only because it was made of solid rock and because the
school there had continued to operate, residents say.
But fanatical Red Guards defaced the building anyway, expunging
the Chinese and Tibetan inscriptions over the entrance that had
welcomed all those who labor and are heavy-laden. The Latin inscription
was left alone. "No one could understand it," said Liu
Wenzeng, the caretaker.
What was inside hearts and minds was harder to erase, despite the
Communists' best efforts. In secret, the Tibetan Catholics baptized
their children and taught them the Scriptures. When confronted,
they would explain that they were just practicing local customs,
which, being in the Tibetan language, the Chinese authorities had
no way of understanding.
"All the older folks continued to pray and practice their
faith at home," said Liu, 64. "They didn't dare do it
After China began to reform in the 1980s, the downtrodden parishioners
trickled back into the church, driving out the pigs that were being
housed there. On a visit in 1987, Savioz discovered little left
from the old days except--to his surprise and delight--a copy of
a Tibetan catechism with his own annotations and a sermon he had
written 40 years earlier.
Little by little, the congregants have restored the church as a
house of worship. Three years ago, they reinstalled statues of Joseph,
Mary and Jesus. Electricity also arrived that year. The front is
decked with artificial Christmas trees and lights year-round.
As a crowning touch, the believers hope to replace the bell that
used to peal across the village, calling the faithful to prayer.
The state is no longer a major threat. Mostly, the church has been
subsumed by it. The Catholic parishes in the region, perhaps 40,000
to 50,000 people, are now supervised by China's government-run Catholic
Church, which does not recognize the authority of the pope.
Yet this does not diminish the worshipers' zeal or affect their
private devotion to the Vatican.
In fact, said Tao, the overseeing priest, elements of the local
style of worship are even more traditionally Catholic than in the
West, since the congregation uses prayer books, translated into
Tibetan, that date to the early 20th century.
What continues to trouble the church is its relations with Buddhist
local leaders. Most of China's 4.6 million Tibetans, in Tibet proper
and on the fringes, are disciples of the exiled Dalai Lama's Yellow
Hat sect of Buddhism. Religious violence is a thing of the past,
but the officials of Diqing prefecture, to which Cizhong belongs,
regularly favor Buddhists over Catholics, Tao said.
For example, he said, officials recently approved the construction
of a new Buddhist temple in Catholic-dominated Cizhong. But they
have so far failed to return confiscated land belonging to the church,
despite instructions from Beijing to do so--22 years ago. "Even
the Cultural Revolution lasted only 10 years," Tao complained.
More recently, local tourism officials hit upon the idea of charging
visitors for admission to the church in Cizhong--and hired a Buddhist
ticket-taker to do it. The idea was scrapped after residents refused
to unlock the gates and angrily surrounded the tourism chief when
he came to check on the plan.
Another, more insidious threat to the Catholics here is their slowly
dwindling numbers. Many of the young have gone off to find work
in the cities and have become increasingly secularized, seduced
by modernity and materialism. New converts are not exactly plentiful.
Yet the devout can take heart from the example of Xu, the man whose
leg was healed by one of the Swiss priests when he was a boy.
Xu was born into a Buddhist family, then became an atheistic Communist
cadre after the Chinese took control of Tibet in 1951.
But under the influence of his devoutly Catholic wife, and still
impressed by the missionaries' kindness to him nearly half a century
before, Xu converted to Catholicism 10 years ago. Pasted on his
living room wall these days is an incongruous triptych of icons:
Jesus in the middle, Mao Tse-tung on the left, soldiers of the People's
Liberation Army on the right.
On Sunday mornings, Xu walks down the narrow dirt track to the
church and joins fellow believers in two hours of praying, singing
and reciting of Scripture.
When Tao is not present to celebrate Mass, the service is led by
church elders--the long-suffering believers who weathered decades
of hardship and persecution, the men and women who sometimes wept
when Tao first began to make regular visits a few years ago.
"They would say to me: 'We're just like orphans, father. No
one takes care of us,' " Tao said.
But, he added, "their faith endured all that time, which just
goes to show that you can't take away what's in people's hearts."