Rome (AsiaNews) - Chinese pilgrims are not welcome in the Sheshan Marian Shrine near Shanghai on its Feast Day next Thursday. In fact, they are advised to stay home. By contrast, the press is urging tourists to visit the local animal preserve, the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, and the Golf Club.
Chinese Catholics will celebrate Mary, Help of Christians, in two days. She is venerated at Our Lady of Sheshan Shrine. The church was built in the 19th century, and has been blessed as the national shrine. It is perched on the top of a green hill with rare trees some 40 kilometres southwest of Shanghai. An astronomical observatory built by the Jesuits in the early 20th century is located nearby. It was later taken over by the government.
For decades, hundreds of thousands of Catholics, even during the darkest days of persecution, came from all over China to pray to Mary, Queen of China. Devotion to Mary has kept Christians united against the temptation of separation.
Against the pope
In his Letter to Chinese Catholics of June 2007, Pope Benedict XVI established a World Day of Prayer for the Church in China celebrated on the feast day of Our Lady of Sheshan.
For the occasion, the Holy Father wrote a special prayer and asked every Catholic in the world to organise moments of prayer to further the unity between underground and official Catholics and enhance communion with the successor of Peter. Equally, he urged the faithful to call on the Lord to give them strength to persevere in bearing Christian witness despite suffering persecution.
However, in 2008 when it was time to celebrate the first World Day, Christians could no longer freely reach Sheshan on 24 May. Only Shanghai residents were allowed to visit the shrine. All other pilgrims were stopped even before they entered the city.
As if the site was a potential terrorist target, the authorities deployed plainclothes and uniformed police officers, installed metal detectors and CCTV cameras, and banned people from stopping or having picnics at the shrine. All this was done ostensibly for "security" reasons. In 2008, it was the upcoming Beijing Olympics; in 2010, the Shanghai Expo; and in 2011, tensions over unlawful ordinations. All in all, the authorities found many reasons, but they all lead back to one, namely a desire to prevent a show of obedience by the faithful towards the pope and a show of unity with the Chinese Church.
Like in previous years, only Catholics from the Diocese of Shanghai will be able to visit the shrine on 24 May. "The political climate is oppressive. Political tensions are running high," Fr Wang, a priest from Central China, told AsiaNews.
In October, a change in leadership is expected in both party and state with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao passing the torch to the fifth generation of Communist leaders. However, various factions in the party are involved in a power struggle just below the surface, especially between liberals and neo-Maoists.
This year, Fr Wang noted, his and neighbouring dioceses will organise pilgrimages only to local shrines. "Anyone who wanted to go to Sheshan went already in early May, or will go afterwards; certainly not now and especially not on the 24th. What is more, many people, especially the young, cannot afford the cost of a pilgrimage because of the economic crisis".
The Diocese of Shanghai will be able to organise a pilgrimage from the small church located half way up the hill and the basilica on the top. Mgr Ma Daqin, vicar general, will celebrate the solemn Mass in the basilica. Despite his venerable age, the diocese's 93-year-old bishop, Mgr Aloysius Jin Luxian, has already celebrated Mass on 1 and 14 May, opening the month-long Marian celebrations.
"For Shanghai Catholics, week-ends in May are a good time to visit the shrine," Fr Wang explained. "The 24th is however a workday and it is impossible to take a day off. As for Catholics from other parts of China, they are strongly discouraged to visit Sheshan in May. A few are able however to sneak in."
The China Daily and Sheshan tourism
"Security issues" and "political tensions" are not concerns found in the China Daily, the Communist party English-language mouthpiece. In recent days, it has published a series of articles on tourism in Sheshan, inviting its readers to visit the hill to see protected animals like the pangolin and racoon dogs as well as rare birds.
In another article, the paper focused on the Sheshan astronomical observatory, which should get a 65m radio telescope by the end of the year, capable of detecting voices and messages from as far as the Milky Way.
Finally, a number of articles were published praising the local cuisine and the city's heavenly golf courses. Our Lady and pilgrims got no coverage.
During Mao's reign, reciting the 'Salve Regina' was banned. The Communist could not accept to hear the earth defined as a 'vale of tears'.
A Chinese Catholic woman told me that one time a Red Guard told her in a threatening manner that "China under Chairman Mao is like heaven; how can you call it a 'vale of tears'?"
Times have changed. China has become a "haven for the rich", but weeping in the 'vale of tears' is still banned, especially if the Sheshan Golf Club is not far away from Our Lady.