By Dan McAloon
SYDNEY, Australia (CNS) – In brilliant winter sunshine the old docklands at Barrangaroo became a moving sea of national flags unfurling above the heads of the 150,000 pilgrims who had come from different corners of the earth to celebrate one faith and liturgy.
Among the flags was one from China: About 60 pilgrims from mainland China managed to attend World Youth Day in Sydney. Among them were priests not registered with the Chinese government who, for the first time in their lives, wore the black and white collar that identifies them as a Catholic priest.
The Chinese pilgrims said they were ecstatic to be in Sydney.
“We can feel the Holy Spirit working upon us,” said one young woman.
“All our young people feel the hand of God moving on them, healing them and making them stronger.”
The pilgrims agreed to talk to CNS on July 15, as World Youth Day opened, only if their real names were not used.
Father Li Jinxing said that for the first 20 years of his life, he had never met a priest.
“Priests were heroic figures, heard about but never seen,” said Father Li, who said the Catholic faith was practised secretly in his home under threat of government persecution.
“Parents and grandparents kept the faith strong.”
He said in China today “things are improving a little” but much still depends on the tolerance of local and provincial authorities as to whether the Church has a legitimate profile.
He spoke of China’s two Catholic communities – those that register with the government and those that refuse to register and continue to operate in a semiclandestine manner.
“The government allows too few seminaries to train the numbers of priests in the official church, so the underground church is by far the bigger one,” the priest claimed.
As a 20-year-old in Hebei province Father Li attended a hurriedly convened secret Mass.
Like all such gatherings, the liturgy was celebrated at lightning speed for fear of discovery. It was at the Mass that Father Li met his first priest and there, as he received Communion, that he realised his vocation.
Accompanying the Chinese pilgrims was a 22-year-old Texan who has been studying Chinese while working as a lay missionary; he did not want to be identified for fear of endangering his ability to work in China.
His connections to the Arizona-based US Catholic group Youth Arise North America ensured that the pilgrims’ fares and registrations for World Youth Day were paid through a donation of US $20,000.
“It is a small miracle in their lives,” he said of the journey.
The Texan said that in his ministry he meets “people who are desperate to meet the one true God.”
“Their grandparents were told that communism was the saviour of the world. Their parents were told it (saviour) was capitalism. They have been let down on both accounts,” he said.
“When they learn that God is a father who loves and treasures them individually, they weep with the realisation,” he said.
“It is a very emotional church; they feel the faith deeply in their hearts.”
He said the Chinese pilgrims’ experience in Sydney would be incalculable.
“These are young people who are leaders in their communities. My work is not about converting people, it is about raising up leaders in the indigenous church,” he said.