Hong Kong (AsiaNews/Sunday Examiner) - The month of May is Our Lady's month and Christians suddenly become pilgrims rather than tourists as they flock in their tens of thousands to Marian shrines throughout the whole of the Christian world. An extremely large number travel to Lourdes, France; others go to Fatima, Portugal or to Ireland to honour Our Lady of Knock, to Poland to venerate the famous Black Madonna of Czestochowa; Italians are partial to Loreto and in the Americas thousands go to Mexico to pray at the beloved shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
What is a Marian shrine?
A Marian shrine is usually a place where the faithful and the Church believe Our Lady has appeared or where some miracle or other supernatural event has taken place through the intercession of the Holy Mother, whom the Chinese like to call Our Lady.
May is also Our Lady's special month in China. May is the time when Chinese Catholics take to the waterways in their sampans or make their way up mountaintops by the tens of thousands to pray at shrines dedicated to Our Lady.
Marian shrines in China
China has a number of Marian shrines. There is the shrine of Our Lady of Bliss situated in the hills north of Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province in southwestern China. This shrine is reputed to be at least 200-years-old. It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and since it was reopened in 1980, has attracted numerous devotees of Our Lady annually.
There is the new shrine in Fuzhou, opened on 30 April 1993 on top of the hill in Longtian village near Fuzhou city, Fujian province. This shrine is dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary and called Rosary Villa. The title given to the shrine is reminiscent of the fact that the Dominicans, who were in Fujian province before Liberation, had dedicated the area to Mary of the Rosary. A statue of Our Lady, a gift from Italy, stands in the middle of the Chinese style pavilion on the shrine grounds. The shrine is used as a place for priests' retreats and for group pilgrimages. It was set up by Fuzhou's elderly bishop to promote unity and community in the Catholic Church.
On 1 May 1994, the famous Marian shrine adjacent to the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Qingyang township in Nanjing diocese, Jiangsu province, reopened after having been closed for some 55 years. Tens of thousands of pilgrims were drawn to the site.
In 1901, according to Old Catholics, Our Lady of Lourdes appeared in Qingyang and healed many of the sick. The Church bought a piece of land and built a church where Our Lady is said to have appeared and it immediately became a popular pilgrimage site. The building was bombed by the Japanese in 1939 and was later turned into a factory. It still functions as a factory today. However, in 1993, some 200 metres from the original site, construction began on a new church. Some 40,000 of the faithful attended the blessing of the new church on 1 May 1994. Regular pilgrimages resumed in 1995 with people coming from Wuxi, Shanghai and all the nearby dioceses. There are, however, two shrines that stand out in a very special way: the Marian shrine in Donglu and the Marian shrine at Sheshan.
Our Lady appears in China
In 1900, China reported three apparitions: one in Beijing in which Our Lady was accompanied by St. Michael the archangel who, in turn, was surrounded by multitudes of angels. A second apparition involved a weeping statue of Our Lady in the village of Santai during the Boxer Rebellion. The third apparition occurred in Donglu. Donglu is about 40 kilometres from Baoding in Hebei province, and it is one of the strongholds of the unofficial Catholic Church in China. Witnesses recount that a beautiful lady, recognised as Mary, appeared in the skies. The Catholics implored Our Lady to save them from their enemies and their city from destruction. In thanksgiving for Our Lady's protection over the city of Donglu during the Boxer Rebellion, a beautiful church was built in her honour. It was meant to serve as a constant reminder to the people of Mary's loving and motherly protection. The pastor, at the time, secured a painting of the Dowager Empress Ci Xi dressed in imperial robes. He commissioned an artist to use it as the background for the image of Our Lady holding the Christ Child. The picture was hung in the Church of Donglu, which eventually became a famous place of pilgrimage.
The shrine at Donglu
People began coming to the shrine in Donglu in 1924, but the first official pilgrimage took place in 1929. By 1932, the location had become such a popular pilgrimage site that Pope Pius XI approved it as an official Marian shrine. Since 1929 tens of thousands of pilgrims have made their way up the hill to the shrine, especially in the month of May.
The miracle of the sun
On 23 May 1995, pilgrims witnessed another phenomenon. Over 30,000 Catholics from the unofficial Church had gathered for Mass at the Donglu shrine. It was the vigil of the Feast of Our Lady, Mary Help of Christians, a favourite of Chinese Catholics. There were four bishops of the unofficial Church concelebrating the Mass and nearly 100 unofficial priests standing in the open field, all eager to honour Our Lady in a special way during her special month. Suddenly, during the opening prayer and again during the consecration, the people observed the sun spinning from right to left. Light rays of various shades emanated from the sky. The people, mesmerised by the phenomenon, could look directly at it without blinking. Suddenly from the centre of the sun people saw what they later described as an apparition. Some beheld the Cross; others said they had seen the Holy Family. Still others had seen Our Lady holding the Infant Jesus while others claimed they had seen the Sacred Host. People, overwhelmed by the vision, suddenly became conscious of their sinfulness and began to cry out, "Holy Mother, forgive me my sins," or "Holy Virgin Mary, have pity on us your children." The phenomenon of the sun changing colours, approaching and then retreating while radiating various hues, lasted for about 20 minutes.
The government's response
Needless to say, the government has not been terribly enthusiastic about having thousands upon thousands of people gather anywhere. This is all the more threatening when the gathering involves religion and people of the unofficial Church. The Public Security Bureau, the agency in charge of keeping watch over the unofficial Catholic community, periodically flexes its muscles to prevent anyone from going on pilgrimage to Donglu. In 1995, when tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked to Donglu for the Feast of Mary Help of Christians on May 24, the Public Security barred all pilgrims from joining anyone on the hill. The police forced people back into buses and trains without offering any explanation. Still, thousands successfully reached the area by finding alternative ways to get there. As many as 100,000 participated in the celebration.
Again in 1996, an official announcement forbade anyone from going to the Donglu shrine. This time two reasons were given for the prohibition: it was an illegal gathering and it was bad for social stability.
Teams of Public Security agents as large as 500 strong were dispatched to all the villages surrounding the Donglu area and to towns all over Hebei Province. As they travelled around, they tried to force the members of the unofficial community to join the Patriotic Association and to do away with unrecognised religious premises such as Donglu. Priests in the towns and villages were ordered not to leave their residences and were forbidden to preach from May 13 until further notice. Lay people were also forbidden to leave their villages. Parents were not allowed to take their children to church or to wear any religious objects.
Against all odds
It seems no amount of pressure can dull the enthusiam of Catholics intent on honouring Our Lady at the Donglu shrine. Every May, regardless of prohibitions, tens of thousands of pilgrims make their way up the steep hill, either in silence or reciting the rosary or singing hymns to praise one who is truly their mother and protector.
The shrine at Sheshan
In June 1989, Pope John Paul II prayed that the Virgin of Sheshan Help of Christians, would look kindly on "the beloved Chinese people." This remark by Our Holy Father indicates the importance of this shrine as a symbol of Christian renewal in China. Sheshan, with its "nine peaks above the clouds" is situated about 35 kilometres from Shanghai city. Its forest of bamboo, its scenic winding paths and running brooks are a fitting location for communing with God and Our Lady. The mountain, according to legend, gets its name from a hermit named She who centuries ago, lived atop the mountain.
In 1866, the Church in Shanghai built a hexagonal pavilion and placed within it an altar and a statue of Our Lady. Five years later, the Jesuits built a church at the summit of the mountain and dedicated it to Our Lady Help of Christians, opening it in 1873.
In 1924, the bishops of China consecrated the nation to Our Lady and following the consecration they made a pilgrimage to Sheshan. Work on a basilica began in 1925 and was completed 10 years later. This church was the first basilica in all of the Far East and it became China's favourite pilgrimage site.
During the Cultural Revolution the beautiful bronze statue of Our Lady at the pinnacle of the basilica disappeared and other religious symbols, including the altar and the stained glass window were all virtually destroyed. A replica of the bronze statue of Mary holding up the Christ Child was finally re-installed on top of the tower in the year 2000. Some 10,000 believers paid for it. Pilgrimages to the shrine resumed in 1979.
Every year since then, pilgrims by the thousands have flocked to Sheshan. In 1990, the first pilgrimage of the decade saw 30,000 Catholics coming to Sheshan for Our Lady's feast. The elderly and the young made the long steep climb from the foothills of the mountain to the summit as a testimony of their love and devotion to Our Lady. One large group of pilgrims are the fisherfolk of Jiangnan who, from earliest times, sailed up the Yangtze, carefully steering their craft through the canals surrounding the foothills of the mountain.
Every year, they come, moor their boats and spend three days and nights at Sheshan to implore Our Lady's help for the future and to thank her for favours received. But they are only a small group compared to the thousands from all over China who come to pay tribute to their heavenly mother in whom they place so much of their trust.