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318: Xishiku Cathedral, Beijing, China
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Xishiku Cathedral, Beijing, China
Mystery Worshipper: Pax Britannica.
The church: Xishiku Cathedral, Beijing, China – also known as the Beitang (northern) Church.
Denomination: Patriotic Catholic Church of China. Not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Church, which is underground and persecuted for the Vatican's diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, a position perhaps similar to that of the Church of England during the period of Catholic persecution. However, the Patriotic Church claims to recognize and pray for the Roman pontiff.
The building: "The largest church in China," in brick and cast iron Gothic, with an elaborate grey marble facade, and built in 1890 by the French mission. The church was formerly the centre of a great complex of schools, orphanages and hospitals. The building has a tall, wide nave with side aisles, octagonal transepts and a huge sanctuary. There are many chandeliers, plus large, painted stations of the cross, old stained glass and the remains of old wall decoration. You could be in suburban Paris. The Patriotic Church re-occupied the building at the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and the church was restored in 1985. It now claims to house eight bishops and stands in spacious and beautiful grounds planted with big old pine and oak trees and with two Chinese pavilions. The magnificent facade of 1900 dates from after the Boxer Rebellion, when the cathedral compound, filled with converts fleeing the rebels, was besieged. Many people were killed here in the fighting before they were rescued by the Allied troops, led by British Indian soldiers.
The church: Entirely Chinese (except me) of all ages.
The neighbourhood: The church is in a mixed commercial, residential and hospital district in the northern part of central Beijing. It is near the University and the National Library, behind very high protective walls and large iron gates.
The cast: Names not known: a priest in a white chasuble, and four tiny but impeccably drilled Chinese servers in red cassocks and white cottas, the two acolytes carrying towering candles – all male, of course. Two other properly vested priests assisted in the distribution of holy communion.
What was the name of the service?
8.00am Mass (Chinese). The Sunday after Ascension Day, and apparently observing the feast itself. This is one of four masses on Sundays, the 6.00am mass being offered in Latin.

How full was the building?
Completely, with many standing around the walls and at the doors. The congregation numbered maybe 1,000.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
As non-Chinese, and thus a barbarian, I was ignored. The faithful helped themselves to plastic-covered hymn and prayer books from the racks.

Was your pew comfortable?
The seats were mission oak benches, rather hard. Standing gave me a better view and was tolerable for 80 minutes or so.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The previous mass overran, and five minutes after the hour there was pandemonium as 1,000 people pushed to get out as quickly as possible, and 1,000 tried to get in as quickly as possible. But immediately the priest emerged from the sacristy, all attention was focused on the worship.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The cast entered to a hymn (with, one hopes, different words) to the tune "See the conquering hero comes". The first spoken words were in Mandarin Chinese – apparently "In the name of the Father..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A Chinese prayer book or missal, and a hymn book.

What musical instruments were played?
A dreadful crematorium-quality electronic organ accompanied a remarkably large and ambitious mixed choir singing from the west gallery. At the offertory, Handel's Hallelujah Chorus was sung, with Latin words substituting for the English. During the prayer of consecration the organ quietly played smoochy mood music (Gounod's Ave Maria, in fact).

Did anything distract you?
Mobile phones were constantly going off – the phone belonging to a man near me played "Jingle Bells" and rang four times. People just answered them in their place, sometimes even while on their knees. The correct etiquette (as observed in Hong Kong) is to move into the side aisle to speak on the phone – the side aisle apparently deemed not to constitute part of the church.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Astonishingly stiff-upper-lip and formal. Full (correct) modern Western Rite catholic ceremonies, including the sung plainchant Vidi Aquam and sprinkling with holy water, incense, and a preface expertly sung by the celebrant. All this was performed efficiently and unselfconsciously, with the help of the expert miniature servers. The readings and prayers of the people were read by laity with firm, clear voices. The congregation was completely attentive throughout (except for the cell phones) and were meticulous in their ritual observances: bows and changes in posture were signalled by a clapper in the west gallery. At the peace, all turned and bowed gravely to their neighbours around them (even me) – Chinese don't like touching. At the end of mass, a brief welcome and the times of mass were barked out in English by an assistant priest.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
I have no idea – it was in Chinese.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Peace be with you. At least that was a phrase, in English, that I caught in the middle of it. It sounded like the appropriate subject for the day.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The total reverence of 1,000 normally voluble and chaotic Chinese during the most sacred parts of the mass, and the devout attention of all, young and old. At times, the sound of girls singing (I imagined under the direction of nuns in great white wimples) wafted in from another part of the buildings. After the terrible vicissitudes of the past 100 years, one thought of what this worship would mean to those missionaries who gave their lives to bring the gospel to this vast country.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The mobile phones.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A sea of 1,000 heads parted around me and swept me along. Chatting in the garden is de rigueur for all ages, and barbarians dare not stand in the way.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any – though tea would probably be more likely than coffee.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – The language barrier presents a formidable problem, though getting up for the 6.00am mass might solve that in exchange for a different problem. It is likely that the clergy speak English (most educated Chinese in Beijing do) and if the Patriotic Catholic-Roman Catholic divide could be surmounted, this would certainly be the church in Beijing for dignified worship. All five of the city's old Catholic churches are again functioning, and some offer English language worship, though not on such an imposing scale as here. The large churches in Beijing and Shanghai (and other cities) are reportedly packed for most services, with vast crowds at Easter and Christmas.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Completely. Despite 50 years of intolerable oppression from a despotic and ruthless atheistic government, this Lord's house was again filled with Catholic Christians firmly celebrating their faith with dignity and reserve.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The deep devotion at the elevation of the host: the entire church on its knees, silent, the organ playing softly, the tinkling bell, the smoke of the incense wafting up – all focused on the mystery of the Word made flesh, raised aloft. And in this historic building, in the heart of Communist China.
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