Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Roman Catholic Church in Nanjing

Much of the outside world's relations with China have centered around religion. If trade and manufacturing became the chief axes of western-Chinese interaction in the modern world, even then missionary activity meant mission hospitals and schools, including the ancestors of Nanjing University and Nanjing Normal University. One of the earliest missionaries to China, however, was Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), an Italian Jesuit who first labored in Portuguese Goa then traveled to China in the 1580s. If his first years here kept him for the most part in southern China (beginning with Macau), his last years found him in Beijing where he found special favor with the emperor.

Less well-known, perhaps, is that Ricci also visited Nanjing several times in the 1590s, and bought a house here where he founded Nanjing's first Christian "church." After Ricci's death and the formal turn against Christianity, this property was torn down and, so far as I know, it had no successor for some time.

But in the nineteenth century Catholicism revived here and led to the founding in Nanjing in 1870 of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. With interruptions from the Northern War in the 1920s and again during the Cultural Revolution, this church has maintained a Catholic presence in Nanjing.  Indeed, it is apparently the only Catholic church here. At the suggestion of a friend who had visited the church a few years ago, Jill and I decided to find it.  Also known as the Shigu Road Cathedral, the church is not far from the university campus, so we were able to walk there in about 20 minutes.

Tucked in behind a wall and enclosed on most sides by commercial enterprises and on its rear by a huge open space evidently destined for new construction, the Romanesque building makes a pleasant first impression.
The interior retains Romanesque arches, their shape highlighted by a pale blue on the walls and ceiling.  Two rows of windows line both side walls.
Perhaps twenty-five rows of wooden benches serve the congregation, facing a pseudo-Gothic altar.

As some of you know better than I, the Catholic church in China has had a contentious relationship with the People's Republic of China, in large measure because of a conflict over the process of appointing bishops. The so-called "Patriotic Roman Catholic Association" coordinates all appointments to episcopal sees, and this process conflicts directly with a prerogative of the Pope (and has apparently led to an underground Catholic church, about which very little is known). Official relations between the PRC and Pope John Paul, who had grown up with and worked under communist states, were especially tense, but, since the elevation of Pope Benedict XVI, there seems to have been some moderation, including the pope's accession to Chinese appointment of several Chinese bishops. Wikipedia reports that Francis Xavier Lu Xinping was appointed head of the Nanjing diocese in 2000, but without papal approval; he was later reconciled with Rome, it seems, and Wikipedia reports him as still heading the diocese.

At any rate, visitors to the church will find hanging on the rear wall portraits of both recent popes.
Photos posted outside the church depict a 2011 funeral for which the church was quite clearly packed, but how many Catholic parishioners the church can claim today is difficult to know. We were lucky to encounter a young woman there who arranged to open the church's small shop where we might get some literature about the church. A small set of postcards includes images of a church filled with worshipers, of priests administering the sacrament of the eucharist to rows of Chinese and the sacrament of baptism to catechumens, and of a priest in a confessional box, a long line of penitents awaiting their turn (according to a sign posted outside, confession now occurs in a separate room in an adjacent building). But what era these pictures document is not clear.  Signs (in English) announce that mass is said four times a week, and yet another note announces that, beginning in 2009, English mass was sung once a week.
So it is clear that in some sense the legacy of Matteo Ricci survives in Nanjing, although whether this was the dream that the missionary Jesuit hoped for seems doubtful.


  1. Hey. I'm in nanjing at the moment and I've been looking for information regarding the mass times of the Catholic Church here. Thank you very much for the info, it's really helpful.mi will be attending mass tomorrow.

    Thanks again!

    Danica Stark

  2. Good blog... keep-up the good work... May I share a blog about the Notre Dame in Paris in
    Watch also the video in youtube