Nomadic priest keeps the faith alive






The sun is setting as a small entourage makes its way slowly along a winding mountain path in a remote corner of Yunnan province. Father Joseph Dang, easily identified by his white baseball cap, has almost completed the two-hour trek down the slippery path after saying Mass in a small village when his mobile phone rings. He chats for a few seconds and then changes direction, heading off back up the mountain. 

The call came from the family of an old man who had just died. By the end of the day, the young priest will have spent six hours on foot serving his scattered flock of 7,000, who live in an area overlooking the upper reaches of the Lancang River (as Chinese call the Mekong). 

Dang, 39, is on what might appear to be an impossible mission. His hope is to keep the faith alive among a 150-year-old Catholic community on the Tibetan plateau, devout descendants of the first generation of Tibetans who were converted to Catholicism by French missionaries in the 1860s. 

The native of Xian , in Shaanxi province, has been visiting the area several times a year since 2002. He is probably the first priest many local Catholics saw after the communists ejected the last foreign missionaries in 1951. Despite persecution at the hands of angry Tibetan lamas and later by communist officials, the community has clung to its faith. 

Their story begins in 1846, when Pope Gregory XVI ordered the Missions Etrang?res de Paris to convert Tibetans to Catholicism. The lamas who then ruled Tibet kicked the priests out, driving them into Yunnan. They erected several churches in Tibetan villages on the west bank of the Lancang, where today crucifixes compete for space on the hillsides with Buddhist stupas. 

The work of the foreign priests was no easier here. Half the 44 Europeans died of illness or at the hands of Buddhist assassins. In 1905, the Cigu Church was razed by Tibetan monks and two of the French missionaries beheaded, their heads allegedly hung on the gates. 

In the 1930s, the beleaguered French priests turned the mission over to the Swiss Mission of St Bernard, whose members were, in turn, kicked out by the communist government in 1951. Catholics were later driven underground as the communists clamped down on religion, but they prayed quietly in their own homes and secretly brought their children up in the faith. During the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, they hid their Tibetan-language prayer books from plundering Red Guards. 

'People were married at home by their parents, who put a crucifix and two candles by the window,' says Dang. Parents baptised their own children. The Vatican recognises the validity of these rites, as there was no other way to keep the faith alive. He says Red Guards dug up the tombs of the French priests murdered in 1905 and scattered their bones across the hillside. Liu, a farmer who goes by the Catholic name Anesi, says villagers quietly gathered the bones and placed them in a new tomb in 1980. 

That French missionaries were able to win over Tibetan Buddhists in this bandit-ridden area is testament to their determination and to the poverty there. 

'I too am very surprised they were able to get Buddhists to convert to Catholicism,' says Father Yao Fei, who was appointed pastor of the Cizhong Church two years ago. 'It's really amazing.' 

He says the missionaries built schools and provided basic medical care to the people. 'This area was very poor at the time,' he adds. 'They offered the Buddhists many advantages.' 

The church reopened in the early 1980s, when the government allowed limited freedom of religion, but for the next 25 years no priests were willing to take on the hardship of living in such a remote area. 

About two-thirds of the 600 residents of Cizhong are Catholics. By the time Yao arrived in 2007, church attendance was dwindling. Only about a dozen people, mainly women, attend the daily evening Mass, and fewer than 100 can be seen on Sundays. 

'People prefer to stay home in the evening to watch TV or play mahjong, so attendance is low,' Yao says. The Tibetan-script hymnals in use just five years ago are now left at home, since none of the younger people can read Tibetan. Mass is now celebrated in Chinese. 

The brick and wood Cizhong Church, a European-style structure with Chinese-style eaves, is tucked away in a valley. Colourful ceiling tiles display the yin-and-yang symbol of Taoism, lotus blossoms found in Buddhism, and other folk themes. Tibetan infinity symbols are painted over the sacristy doors, while a vivid dragon and phoenix stare down from the arches. 

There are no pews in the church, just wooden slats that sit a few centimetres above the floor. 

Female worshippers dress in colourful Tibetan and Naxi outfits. 

During Sunday Mass, the people sing Catholic hymns that were long ago set to traditional Tibetan melodies, and which sound more like Buddhist chants. The chanting goes on for 30 minutes before Yao steps to the altar and the language switches to Putonghua. 

A 40-minute drive down the dirt road, the situation is a bit different in the Jueren Church, a simple white structure sitting on a hillside with stunning views of terraced rice fields and the Lancang. This church was built in 1997 with funds donated by the area's Catholics. A simple table serves as the altar and there are rough religious images on the walls. The confessional is a one-dimensional cut-out that looks like a stage prop for a child's drama. There are about 80 Catholics here. They have no priest, but come every Sunday to pray together. 

There are about 15 women and just two men in the church. The group chants over and over, stops and puts their hands together in prayer. Many take out rosary beads and begin to pray. It's unclear if anyone is directing the service, or if it has been done this way for so many years that it has become habit. 

Liu's farmhouse sits beside the new Cigu Catholic Church, a bit farther down the road. It was built 20 years ago. Statues of the Blessed Mother and Joseph flank the altar, curiously wrapped in plastic, possibly to protect them from the dust. 

His home is typically Tibetan except for the Catholic images - of Jesus, Mary and the Last Supper - that sit in the wall space normally reserved for Buddhist images and photos of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. A large Mao poster is taped to the opposite wall beside a Catholic calendar that has a drawing of the Blessed Mother. 

The major concern today is how to save this dwindling Catholic community. One problem is that the community is spread around the steep hillsides, most of which are reachable only on foot. 'I'm worried because there are too many places,' says Dang, who travels to small Catholic villages throughout the area, saying Mass, hearing confessions, visiting the sick and performing baptisms and marriage ceremonies. 

He is also concerned about the younger people of the community. 'The older people are familiar with Catholic theology,' he says, 'but with the younger people it's a problem. It has been passed down by word of mouth. Young people don't have the passion their parents had. I'm worried.' 

What is surprising is how so many have remained true to their faith. The people say it is because of their warm memories of the former missionaries. 

'We were very backward here then and the priests cured sick people,' says Ruanna, 74, who was about 15 when the foreign priests were forced to leave in 1951. 'It didn't matter whether you were a Catholic or not. They helped everyone. They also took care of orphans and the handicapped and the elderly who had no children. I never saw them do a bad thing. 

'When the priests left, in our hearts we did not want them to go. We awaited their return.' 

Many families still possess worn copies of old church books. When asked if she still has hers, Ruanna disappears into another room, emerging soon with three small books, blessing herself as she walks across her living room floor. 

She sits in a chair near the window and recites the Tibetan script as the morning sunlight splashes across the pages. The title on the cover is in Tibetan, but French at the bottom indicates that the book was published by the MEP in Hong Kong in 1896. 

It is Sunday morning and Ruanna has changed into her best clothes for Mass, with a rosary hung around her neck. Behind her on the kitchen wall is a portrait of Mary, strings of corn stretching out on both sides. Zherenika, a childhood friend, says that both her parents died when she was a young girl and that the priests took her in. 'Had they stayed, I would have become a nun,' she says. 

'During our hard times, the Holy Mother took care of us. Even when there were no priests, God was in our hearts.' 

As she says this, the church bell rings in the valley summoning people to Sunday Mass; the two elderly women leave the house hand in hand and walk to the church. When asked if she's afraid that Catholicism will disappear, Agata, Ruanna's daughter-in-law, says firmly: 'Bu hui' - 'No, that won't happen.' 

She says that parents all want their children to be Catholic at birth and usually give them Catholic names within just three days. 

'We've known we are Catholic since we were very young, one generation after another,' she says firmly. Agata says that even during the harsh days of the Cultural Revolution, 'no one forgot they were Catholic'. 

Francois Xiao, 81, is one example. He was 21 when the Swiss priests left. As he spoke French and was being trained for the clergy, he was taken away from the village and sent to a reform-through-labour camp. 

'I spent 29 years there for my commitment to my religion,' he says smiling. 

'I was educated by the foreign priests,' he adds, as something of an explanation for his harsh punishment. 'They kept saying I'd not reformed.' 

The wall of his small home room is a mini-shrine, covered with drawings of Mary, Jesus, Pope Benedict, various saints, a crucifix and a Catholic calendar. 

Dang would like the Tibetans to use their own language in church, and he says he plans to promote the language by translating religious texts from Chinese into Tibetan. 

The sun has already disappeared behind the mountain when a small group comes out of the forest. A Tibetan hands the driver Dang's possessions - a small knapsack and a red cloth bag bearing the words Yangcheng Shoe City - the only things the priest has brought with him for his stay of five months, which he says will take him to each of the scattered Catholic villages in the area. 

He opens his small knapsack and pulls out an old tin can, filled with roughly finished communion hosts that he has baked himself. 

Our truck makes its way down the narrow mountain road, which hangs precariously over the valley deep below, making the drive frightening at certain points. 

When the driver stops at a roadside shop, a twenty-something woman peeks into the truck and shouts 'Father!' She runs to the side of the truck and drops to the ground and puts her hands together and bows her head. Dang makes a sweeping sign of the cross over the kneeling figure. 

A few hundred yards down the road, he stops the truck again to visit a sick man. The man is paralysed and so his sons move him out to the yard, using strings tied to his feet to move his legs. Over his neck Dang places a purple stole - a cloth sash used when giving the sacraments - and puts his hand on the man's head while giving the blessing. Dang will spend the evening at Liu's farmhouse. Grace is said in Tibetan and the meal begins. Suddenly a young husband and wife in their thirties enter the house carrying two small children. 

Smiling, they kneel down in front of Dang. He stands and makes the sign of the cross. 'Lucia, you've put on some weight,' he jokes with the young woman, who breaks into a wide smile. 

Yageba, the husband, says it took the family 40 minutes to walk in from their house in total blackness on this moonless night. 'My wife and I came because we heard Father Dang was here,' he says. 

'I sleep in a different house every night,' he'd said the night before. 'Sometimes I don't wash my clothes for a month.' He says that his stomach has been bothering him. 'I'm sick,' he says simply, with no sense of self-pity. 

He'd like to work with these people full time, but that would not be allowed by the church officials in Dali , who resent his presence. 'I'm very tired,' he says, 'but no other priests come here.' 

'I'm not discouraged,' he says, 'but what's disappointing is that the clergy has let these people down.' 

The next morning Dang prepares to return to the village to say a funeral Mass. The truck makes its way back up the narrow mountain path until the road peters out into the forest. He'll have to walk on from here. 

As if on cue, a handful of Tibetans come out of the forest to help him carry his few belongings. He shakes Liu's hand with a smile, turns and disappears into the trees.

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney