A Test of Faith

4 minute read

Beijing boasts four Catholic churches known simply by the four points on the compass. They are overseen by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the government-mandated entity that tries to bridge the gap between a faith normally guided from the Vatican and an officially atheist Chinese Communist Party.

This is what happened when Time tried to telephone these state-affiliated churches to ask about Pope Francis’ recent trip to South Korea, the first visit to Asia by a Pontiff in 15 years. The North church representative said the cathedral was closed because it was a Monday. Besides, she wasn’t Catholic so she couldn’t comment. The person at the East church also said no one was around. He wasn’t Catholic either. The South and West churches’ numbers were out of service.

Still, at the South church, or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, parishioner Gao Yuzhen was happy to talk about Fang Jige, as Pope Francis is known in Mandarin. “As a Catholic, I definitely hope the Pope can visit China,” said the 63-year-old retiree, even though the Holy See and Beijing don’t have official relations, with China naming its own bishops rather than submitting to the Vatican’s command. The current gray brick cathedral was rebuilt in 1904 after religious strife claimed an earlier incarnation. During Christmas and Easter Mass, even standing-room space is scarce. “Many people are lost, and they want to be guided,” says Gao. “That’s why they convert to Catholicism.”

Christianity, the world’s most populous faith, is burgeoning across Asia. Some 60 million Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, live in China alone, according to relatively conservative estimates of official congregations and “underground” flocks that worship without state approval. The Vatican says Catholic fervor is growing faster in Asia than any other continent. In South Korea, Pope Francis met North Korean defectors, families of victims of the April ferry disaster, and women forced into sexual slavery for wartime Japanese soldiers. But, above all, he celebrated a nation in which 1 in 10 citizens is now Catholic, double the number a quarter-century ago. Although only 3% of Asians identify themselves as Catholic, the Vatican says that more people in Asia were baptized this year than in Europe, where parishes are shrinking.

Highlighting Asia’s increasing importance, Pope Francis will return to the region in January, touring Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Yet as Christianity collects more souls across the continent, its converts are also coming under pressure. In Malaysia, Muslims blocked Christians from using the word Allah for their God even though such usage has a long tradition in the local Malay language. In China, for all the full pews, the government remains wary of the faith. Churches, both state-approved and underground, have endured official harassment. In the eastern province of Zhejiang, local authorities have ordered dozens of churches to remove their crosses. Another popular official church was bulldozed and pastors have been detained.

The easy explanation for this anti-Christian campaign is that China, like Vietnam and North Korea, is suspicious of any force that challenges the ruling Communist Party. Hence the enduring crackdown on Falun Gong, the meditation movement whose followers have been persecuted with disproportionate zeal. But there’s something else about Christianity in Asia—its very Western identity and bond to imperialists who proselytized as they colonized. For proudly nationalist leaders in Asia, Christianity evokes an era when youngsters who wanted the best education were often funneled into parochial schools or had to mouth the Lord’s Prayer to get ahead.

In South Korea, Pope Francis, a Jesuit, addressed such fears of foreign dominance, urging people to “walk together.” “These Christians,” the Pontiff said of today’s faithful, “aren’t coming as conquerors.” In a hopeful sign of a thaw with Beijing, the Pontiff said he would visit China “tomorrow” if he could. Back at the turn of the 17th century, another Jesuit, priest Matteo Ricci, made history as the first Westerner believed to be allowed into the Forbidden City, where the Chinese Emperor resided. A remarkable linguist, the Italian missionary brought advances in astronomy and cartography to the cloistered mandarins. The site of Ricci’s chapel, on land allocated by the Emperor, is where Beijing’s South church now stands.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com