Rome (AsiaNews) - There is a subtle war underway against pilgrimages to the Marian shrine of Sheshan, the national Chinese shrine that is typically visited during the month of May. The war is being waged by the government and by the Patriotic Association (PA). Both "recommend" (meaning: order) that people not visit Sheshan for the entire month of May. The government cites safety problems, while the PA does not give any reason, but wants to block any mingling among official and underground Catholics, who meet each other every year at the shrine, above all on May 24, the feast of Mary Help of Christians, to whom the church of Sheshan is dedicated. Moreover, this year Benedict XVI has asked Chinese Catholics to celebrate May 24 as a Day of Prayer for the Church in China, praying for its unity and for its persecutors (cf. Letter to the Chinese Catholics, no. 19).
For the entire month of May, the local government of Shanghai has placed restrictions on traffic and the movement of the faithful on the roads to Sheshan, about 50 kilometres southwest of the city. According to reports sent to AsiaNews, the authorities have also asked the various dioceses, especially Shanghai, Wenzhou, Ningbo - the dioceses closest to the shrine - not to go on pilgrimage this month. Moreover, also by order of the government, for all of May the centre for pilgrims at the shrine is prohibited from offering food and lodging, and the nearby hotels and hostels are prohibited from welcoming Catholic pilgrims; on the roads leading to the shrine, controlled by at least two hundred policeman, closed circuit cameras have been installed; at the entrance to the church, there are x-ray and infrared scanning machines.
All of these measures block both official and underground Catholics indiscriminately. But there is also the obligation for each pilgrim to ask in advance for permission to go to Sheshan, and to register with the diocese of Shanghai, a measure that underground Catholics maintain is "dangerous": the government could use the registration to seek out and harm unofficial Catholics.
To add to the burden, for the first time in the history of the Church in China the PA has released a note with precise guidelines directing all the dioceses in China to organise Marian devotions in their own territory, ruling out pilgrimages to Sheshan. The note, in five points, explains that the reasons for the restrictions are linked to the "safety" of the pilgrims. It advises that Marian prayers and devotions be organised locally, or in other places of pilgrimage, but not in Sheshan, to prevent overcrowding. This year, after the pope's proposal of the a World Day of Prayer for the Church in China, at least 200,000 people were expected at the shrine.
The note is also signed by the council of Chinese bishops, a body not recognised by the Holy See. It also suggests the ways in which devotion to Mary should be expressed: the rosary; prayers to the Virgin on a daily basis throughout May; Mass every day and especially on Saturday; a day dedicated to Mary. The note of the PA also suggests prayer intentions for the evangelisation of China, for the pope, for peace, for the sick, for smooth proceedings for the Olympics, for good results for the Chinese athletes, and for a "harmonious society", the leitmotif of the social program of president Hu Jintao.
A final restriction: no one will be able to celebrate Mass at the shrine except for priests of the diocese of Shanghai specifically appointed for this service.
Some visitors to the shrine - prior to the restrictions - affirm that the controls are connected to the tension created by the Tibetan uprisings, which make any assembly of people suspect. But there is also an unspoken attempt to block a gesture requested by the pope, to create unity between the Church in China and the universal Church. For months, the diocese of Hong Kong had been planning a pilgrimage to Sheshan on May 24. But growing difficulties presented by the local government prompted the diocese of Cardinal Zen to cancel the pilgrimage.