Seoul (AsiaNews) - Luca Chang, not his real name, travelled from Nanjing to Seoul via Beijing, to say "thank you" to the pope and show in a practical way the unity of the universal Church and the love of Chinese Catholics for the Pope despite persecution by their government. Although the distance is not that great, it took him almost two days to reach the Korean Peninsula.
In order to join other young people from the continent and celebrate with them and Francis the opening of Asian Youth Day, he had to wait for a student visa that arrived in the Chinese capital at the last moment. Almost at the same time as, unfortunately, another group of young Chinese was blocked by the authorities in the capital and forced to cancel their visit to Korea for "bureaucratic irregularities."
Luca arrived in Seoul with two friends, both seminarians from another diocese (in central China), and all three were present yesterday in the Daejeon World Cup Stadium for the solemn Assumption Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
The two seminarians, in their third year, were proudly dressed as priests. "We asked our bishop," said one of the two, who has the same name as a very famous bishop in China, "and he told us to 'Go dressed as priests and tell the Pope that our Church is alive and loves him!' We have not been able to meet the Holy Father, but I am convinced that we shall succeed. "
For the small group, which is part of a larger delegation of about 120 mainland Chinese present in Korea for the Asian Youth Day, the distinction between official and unofficial Church "no longer matters that much, at least in our diocese. Regardless of what the government says, we are loyal to the pope and our bishop has his recognition. Certainly, some priests are closer to the government that sometimes criticise him and us. But that does not bother us that much, and we have a laugh at their expense by calling them 'Red Guards'. What matters for us is to be here, to say thank you to Francis and know many other Catholics from our continent."
Luke, a layman who is studying in university, feels the same way. "There are problems in some areas of China, such as Shanghai, where the government has taken a stand against the Church. But in other places people live quite normally. What bothers me is that there is no official policy regarding the Catholic religion. Sometimes our leaders are quiet; on other occasions, they seem very angry and treat Catholics as traitors. Of course, a lot depends on local officials. A priest friend of mine was held in custody for two days only because he was disliked by a police captain in his district, who used his faith as an excuse to harass him."
Luca's concern is well reflected by Beijing's latest moves vis-à-vis the pontiff's arrival in Korea. On the one hand, China granted the pope permission to fly through its airspace, they received (albeit late for "technical reasons") the papal telegram and replied with a statement from the Foreign Ministry, which said it was "willing to build relationships with the Vatican." On the other, they blocked a large group of young Catholics from travelling to Seoul to meet Francis, recalled several Chinese priests who work in Korea and threatened many others with "problems" when they return home.
According to the young Catholic man, all this "is part of a larger design, which in my view is not really about the Church. Politicians are making war with each other, and we have to figure out who will win before we have a clear line on Catholics. As for me, I am honoured and happy to be here. I will stay in Seoul a year after the pope's departure because I won a scholarship to study at a university in Korea, and I am going to live my faith better and with more freedom."
He learnt about this faith late thanks to a rather sad story. "I lived with my parents in the suburbs until I was ten. Both are staunch Communist and they educated me in the same way, although I have never had much love for slogans and parades. Then they gave me up because they found a job in the city, and I went to live with my grandparents in the country. My grandmother was always a Catholic, and for this reason quarrelled with my mom on many occasions. In the evenings, she used to come next to my bed and pray to my guardian Angel. Once I asked her what she was doing, and she began to talk to me about Jesus and God's love."
The grandmother's sway was not enough though. "I started going to a church near the district where there is a very old priest. Once a week a younger one comes. We jokingly call him 'the travelling priest'. He helped me a lot with the catechism and was my godfather when I was baptised. I asked for the sacraments when I was 13, and I continued to deepen my faith and the Gospel thanks to him. He is the one who suggest I wait to apply for the scholarship, which I could get in May, so that I could come here at the same time as the pope. He helps me every day. When we get in touch, he reminds me that we are not alone and that our situation is not the worst in the world."
Ultimately, "Asian Youth Day is giving me so much. I met a young Pakistani who told me how Catholics live in his country, and, for a moment, I felt really lucky to be Chinese. It is true that we risk jail, but they get shot! Meeting so many young people and learning that my problems are also to some extent their problems made me feel good. When the pope told us yesterday that it is the Lord who decides our path, I was filled with an odd calm. I am not alone, and Francis reminded me of it with a father's love. I will never forget that."