05/22/2008, 00.00
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In China the Church is getting ready for the World Day of Prayer in union with the Pope

by Bernardo Cervellera
The government stops pilgrimages and gatherings, but in Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and Guangzhou official and underground priests, religious and faithful prepare to pray the Pope’s words about Our Lady of Sheshan. In addition to the Pope’s intent they will pray for Sichuan quake victims, grateful to the Universal Church.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Every diocese in China is getting ready to celebrate World Day of Prayer for the Church in China, an event set by Benedict XVI for 24 May. Despite limitations on meetings and pilgrimages, priests, religious and lay people have planned the adoration of the Eucharist throughout the day. Visits to shrines and prayers asking God to bless China and the Pope as well as provide eternal rest to those who died in the Sichuan quake are also scheduled. In the meantime the Pope’s Letter to Chinese Catholics and the special prayer he wrote for the occasion are getting greater attention even though Chinese media barely mentioned the prayer the Holy Father wrote in dedication to Our Lady of Sheshan.

Benedict XVI launched the idea of a World Day of Prayer for the Church in China setting 24 May as the day for the event in the Letter to Chinese Catholics he wrote last year. It is customary for Chinese Catholics to celebrate the liturgical memorial of Mary, Help of Christians, who is venerated at the Sheshan shrine near Shanghai on that day and throughout May, the month of pilgrimages.

In is the Pope’s intention to have the prayer strengthen the unity between underground and official Christians and their communion with the successor of Peter. In it he calls upon the Lord for the strength to persevere in the Christian witness despite suffering persecution.

Many people across China were hoping to visit Sheshan on 24 May, but Shanghai authorities are not allowing any diocese to send pilgrims to the shrine in the month of May. Control is so tight that a Beijing Catholic said that “not even a needle can get through.”

Government controls seem to be motivated by fears of large crowds that might get out of control at a time of tensions due to the Sichuan earthquake, crackdown in Tibet and China’s desire to project a picture-perfect image of itself to the outside world in the run-up to the Olympics. But for some it is also an attempt to boycott the Pontiff’s invitation.

Only the diocese of Shanghai, which this year celebrates 400 years since the founding of the local Church, will be allowed to organise pilgrimages to Sheshan, but under the police surveillance and tight controls and registrations. A parish priest in the city told AsiaNews that for 24 May priests and nuns from the diocese have organised some bus trips to Sheshan (about 35 kilometres from the metropolitan area). Once at the base of the hill the religious will walk the rest of the distance until the top, praying. Some lay people will go with them “even though they have been urged not to.”

Mass in the shrine is scheduled for 10 am and will be presided by Mgr Joseph Xing Wenzhi, the auxiliary bishop. In Shanghai parishes copies of the Pope’s prayer with a bilingual Chinese and English text were handed out.

Even in Beijing the Day of Prayer will be celebrated, at least officially, by priests and nuns. In the morning some 30 priests and 10 representatives for each parish in the diocese will go on pilgrimage to Hou Shangyu Church, which is dedicated to Our Lady. In compliance with the government’s fear of large crowds the group will not include more than 100 people. But in local homes and parish churches, official and underground Catholics will join together to recite the Pope’s prayer.

In Xian, a faithful told AsiaNews that he was upset by the government’s ban on pilgrimages to Sheshan. “Still we shall pray for the Pope’s intent,” he said.

The Eucharistic adoration will take place throughout the day in St Francis Cathedral. Some groups will go on pilgrimage to a nearby Marian shrine, Holy Cross Mountain and Saint Mary, in the diocese of Duzhi.

Priests in the diocese, which is near Sichuan, said that they will also pray for the victims of the earthquake. Many Catholics are involved every day in helping out thousands of people camping out in the square in from of the cathedral, afraid of new aftershocks. A group of volunteers is in Sichuan to bring assistance to survivors.

In Guangzhou, no official event has been publicly announced to celebrate the Day of Prayer, but many priests told AsiaNews that the Day of Prayer and the importance of the relationship of the faithful with the Holy Father have been discussed. One said he was grateful that the whole Universal Church was concerned about their fate.

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