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A Faith Near to Heaven

A century and a half ago, French priests brought Catholicism to the Tibetan plateau. There it has endured, despite war, Maoism and rival religions.


In Cizhong, the Swiss priests ran a school, a seminary and a hospital for the poor--which meant virtually everybody. On the rippling green hillsides, they planted barley and grapes from Europe; three families still harvest the grapes and press them into the wine used for Communion.

Xu Shadu, 69, remembers the Swiss priest who helped heal a gash in his leg when he was a boy.

"Everyone who was sick would go see him, because it was free," Xu recalled. "People would give him eggs or cooking oil. But if you had nothing to give, then you gave nothing."


Father Alphonse Savioz ministered in Cizhong from 1948 to 1951, a tense and violent period in Tibetan-Chinese relations that ultimately resulted in Communist forces' overrunning the Buddhist kingdom.

"Under such conditions [on the Tibet-China border] it was difficult to do the work of evangelization," said Savioz, who is now 83 and lives in Taiwan. "In the majority-Chinese areas, the missions were looted and the fathers stripped of everything, even the clothes off their backs."

In 1949, one of Savioz's friends, Father Maurice Tornay, was killed, allegedly at the hands of Buddhist monks. (Tornay was beatified as a martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1993.) Savioz was hauled in for repeated interrogation by the advancing Chinese, who expelled him from the country in 1952, after taking over the whole of Tibet.

For the flock in Cizhong, left leaderless and helpless, the arrival of the Communists meant the beginning of 30 years of suppression.

Their church, under whose curling eaves many had sought succor and comfort, was turned into a public assembly hall. Communist propaganda performances were staged where the altar had stood and where priests had once blessed the wine and the bread.

Parishioners accustomed to kneeling in prayer were forced instead to bow to Maoism. Bibles and other religious materials had to be kept hidden in their homes. The authorities substituted daily Masses with frequent ideological "struggle sessions" designed to reform "misguided" thinking. Some believers, such as Luo Shengcai's grandfather, were even shipped to labor camps.

During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Cizhong's church was spared destruction only because it was made of solid rock and because the school there had continued to operate, residents say.

But fanatical Red Guards defaced the building anyway, expunging the Chinese and Tibetan inscriptions over the entrance that had welcomed all those who labor and are heavy-laden. The Latin inscription was left alone. "No one could understand it," said Liu Wenzeng, the caretaker.

What was inside hearts and minds was harder to erase, despite the Communists' best efforts. In secret, the Tibetan Catholics baptized their children and taught them the Scriptures. When confronted, they would explain that they were just practicing local customs, which, being in the Tibetan language, the Chinese authorities had no way of understanding.

"All the older folks continued to pray and practice their faith at home," said Liu, 64. "They didn't dare do it in public."

After China began to reform in the 1980s, the downtrodden parishioners trickled back into the church, driving out the pigs that were being housed there. On a visit in 1987, Savioz discovered little left from the old days except--to his surprise and delight--a copy of a Tibetan catechism with his own annotations and a sermon he had written 40 years earlier.


Little by little, the congregants have restored the church as a house of worship. Three years ago, they reinstalled statues of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Electricity also arrived that year. The front is decked with artificial Christmas trees and lights year-round.

As a crowning touch, the believers hope to replace the bell that used to peal across the village, calling the faithful to prayer. The state is no longer a major threat. Mostly, the church has been subsumed by it. The Catholic parishes in the region, perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 people, are now supervised by China's government-run Catholic Church, which does not recognize the authority of the pope.

Yet this does not diminish the worshipers' zeal or affect their private devotion to the Vatican.

In fact, said Tao, the overseeing priest, elements of the local style of worship are even more traditionally Catholic than in the West, since the congregation uses prayer books, translated into Tibetan, that date to the early 20th century.

What continues to trouble the church is its relations with Buddhist local leaders. Most of China's 4.6 million Tibetans, in Tibet proper and on the fringes, are disciples of the exiled Dalai Lama's Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism. Religious violence is a thing of the past, but the officials of Diqing prefecture, to which Cizhong belongs, regularly favor Buddhists over Catholics, Tao said.

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