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300-year-old church celebrated in China

XI’AN (UCAN): With a splash of red silk, Bishop Anthony Dang Mingyan and three other bishops unveiled a tablet in the grounds of St. Francis Cathedral in Xi’an marking the 300th anniversary of the church in Shaanxi, China, and installed a relic of its patron, St. Francis of Assisi, at the culmination of what was a four-day gala event beginning on October 1 and concluding on October 4.

The fiesta-style celebration held over four days was attended by thousands of people. It featured music, lectures and a cultural show, in addition to the installation of the relic and the unveiling of the tablet.

“The Franciscan missionaries used to manage the diocese and the patron of the cathedral was named as St. Francis, so we applied for a relic of the saint, which was sent to us in the spring and we installed it on the saint’s feast day,” Bishop Dang explained.

“I hope Catholics will model their faith on this saint by being humble and living with simplicity, in search of peace and love of nature,” the bishop continued.

The gala celebrations began with an outdoor Mass presided at by Bishop Dang with over 3,000 people flocking into the church compound to participate in the ceremony.

The original section of the church was built in 1716. It features three naves, with Chinese-styled decorations and paintings. It was expanded into its current state in 1883.

Thousands of people took part in a series of conferences and concerts, with one featuring 14 individual church choirs.

Exhibits highlighting the vitality of life around the church over three centuries were on display, including portraits of the 21 bishops who have lived and worked in Xi’an, beginning with the first, a Franciscan, Bishop Basilio Brollo (Yè Zangxián in Chinese), to the current incumbent, Bishop Dang.

Two lectures on the history of the Church in China and Shaanxi, one from Liu Ping, the author of A Brief History of Chinese Catholic Art, and the other from Father Hu Shibin, who put together a work called Shaanxi Catholicism, were highlights of the four-day celebration.

On October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, 41 people were baptised at a morning Mass. They represented the whole spectrum of generations from elderly people to babes in arms, including the young and middle aged.

The grandparent of the group was a 67-year-old and the baby a 30-day-old infant.

“The series of events was designed to remind Catholics not to forget Church history and remember the contribution of our earlier missionaries,” Bishop Dang, from Xi’an, said.

“Today, we have to bear the mission of evangelisation so that the diocese continues to develop,” he continued.

Spinning a bit of history, Bishop Dang explained that the first cathedral, now known as Chongyi Church, and the present seat of the diocese located in Wuxing Street, which is also known as the South Church, were inside the walled city.

Chongyi Church was erected in what is now Tangfang Street in 1625 by Father Nicolas Trigault with the help of a local Catholic, Wang Zheng.

Bishop Dang said the building survived the warring periods of the early 1900s and the local community never stopped its outreach work.

Under Bishop Eugenio Massi in 1919, the diocese built primary and high schools, opened orphanages, homes for elderly people and hospitals.

In recent years, the cathedral parish has established Sunday schools, an adult catechumenate and catechist formation courses.

There is also a Sunday soup kitchen for homeless people and the Home of Lourdes to care for the marginalised and lost souls.

Xi’an is the provincial capital and one of four ancient capitals of China. It was home to 13 dynasties. Today, it has an estimated Catholic population of 40,000.

Bishop Dang, who has both Vatican and government recognition, described the celebration as an opportunity for the Church to grow in solidarity and to show God’s mercy through its daily work and social services.

Large public events of this nature are rare in the Church in China, which tiptoes around a complexity of government rules and regulations that limit its freedom to show itself off in the full sight of all.

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