He had to say Mass in secret during his 10 years in China, but Fr Greg McEnnally MSC predicts that within a short time China could become the largest Christian nation on earth.
“Christians in China now vastly outnumber the communist party, Fr McEnnally told The Catholic Weekly.
“So what’s going to happen in the future? How many Chinese will be Christian? It could be, within a fairly short time, the largest Christian country on the planet.”
As a priest of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart—an order that sends missionaries all around the world—Fr McEnnally reluctantly went to China in 2002 to teach English at the request of his superiors. He had been working in Indonesia at the time and loved it there so much that the prospect of going to China had little appeal.
After more than a decade in the country however, he came to love the Chinese people greatly, especially the students he taught at universities in Fuzhou, Tongren and Chongqing.
His gained appreciation and understanding of the Chinese culture led Fr McEnnally to write his recently-published book, China: Behind the Mask, after his return to Australia in 2014.
The book explores several dominant cultural aspects of China including nationalism—loyalty and love for China alone.
“Patriotism is love of your country. That is a virtue. Joan of Arc died because of her patriotism as a soldier fighting for her country. Nationalism is a whole different ball game. Nationalism is love only of your country. I love China and I love the Chinese people but that doesn’t stop me from loving Australia also. But for them, it’s just China.”
“Nationalism is by far the biggest problem in China. That’s why China has taken the South China Sea. I don’t see China as a country. I see China as an empire which is composed of many countries.”
This makes life complicated for Catholics in China. Religion has long been oppressed by the communist regime and Christianity is seen as a Western religion because it was missionaries from Europe who first brought the faith to China.
It is also seen as a problem that Catholics in China have an allegiance to the Pope in Rome, since the nationalist mindset means one’s loyalty should belong to China only.
Catholics are therefore considered traitors to their country and are carefully monitored by the government. This has forced many Catholics to practice their faith in the “underground Church,” while others practice within the state controlled “Patriotic Church.”
In recent times many churches have been demolished by the government and in some areas publicly -displayed symbols of faith, such as crosses on churches, are prohibited.
Fr McEnnally said he knows of two women who were arrested by police and “belted up” for distributing bibles in a market place. One of them died from her injuries, he said.
In order to retain his position as an English teacher, Fr McEnnally could not reveal his identity as a Catholic priest to anyone, not even to other priests.
“Some of the priests were spies for the government. We had a spy in our building too. There were spies at every Mass, reporting on who was there and who wasn’t there.”
He would say Mass secretly in his own apartment and on Sundays would attend the Patriotic Church for Mass, sitting in the pews seemingly as a lay Catholic.
“I’d put money on the plate like any other normal Catholic. I’d go to sleep during the sermons because they were long and boring,” he laughed.
Only once did someone guess his true identity. One of his students walked up to him one day in class and said, “Mr McEnally, I think you’re a Catholic priest.”
“I nearly fell off my chair,” Fr McEnnally said.
He even found ways of teaching Christian values in his English classes by organising students into small discussion groups—for the purpose of practising their English—and giving them topics to discuss such as love, relationships and happiness.
“You don’t become happy unless you try to give happiness. Your worth is judged not by what you have, in trying to accumulate wealth, but by what you give,” he taught them.
Simmering under the surface, Fr McEnnally says, there is a lot of resentment towards the Chinese government among the people. Some of his students were “intensely angry” because of their lack of freedom, he said.
During the decade Fr McEnnally was in China the number of mass protests against the government rose from about 20,000 a year to about 120,000 a year, demonstrating a growing unrest.
He believes that the communist government’s days are numbered and it’s only a matter of time before it’s toppled.
He also has great hope for the future of the Catholic Church in China. Although there are no official figures, he says it is estimated that there are about 20 million Catholics in China and about 60 million Christians of other denominations.
“So possibly as many as 100 million Christians,” Fr McEnnally said.
“The Church will be fine. It’s persecuted but it is here in Australia also. Jesus told us to expect persecution. If you’re being persecuted, you’re doing something right. I think the Church in Australia is being persecuted by secularists precisely because the Church is such a threat to them.”
“The Catholic Church is still young. It’s only 2,000 years old and will continue to develop and spread.”
“We’re only seeing China’s relationship with the Church now, at this point in history. What’s it going to be like in another 2,000 years time?”
Fr McEnnally’s book China: Behind the Mask can be purchased for $21.40 (plus postage) from www.booktopia.com.au