China Society

Mayo priest’s experience of ministering in atheist China

It’s the summer of 2008 and the concrete has barely set in the grounds of a Catholic seminary in Shijiazhuang, a city of 11 million people in Hebei province in northern China and also the centre of Chinese Catholicism.

In 2008 China is a giant building site, in the midst of a decades-long splurge of cement and steel which has only recently tapered off. A huge building program at the Shijiazhuang seminary has recreated Romanesque and gothic European churches in moulded mass concrete and brick.

Walking in the garden of the seminary is a Mayo priest, Joseph Loftus, a tall, bespectacled figure deeply respected among the Chinese clergy in the seminary. But Loftus isn’t here as a priest – foreign clerics aren’t allowed to preach and evangelise in the officially atheist Chinese state.

For long the world’s most populous country (now India) China has long held much allure for evangelists. But the Communist Party running the country, having largely stamped out open religious practise during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, requires the Catholic church hierarchy to answer to a state agency rather than an external power the Vatican. 

And yet Fr Joseph spent over two contented decades in China, where the number of Catholics is approximately ten million. Ordained 40 years ago, Loftus will be 66 in August and spends his days now as chaplain to the Technological University in Dublin, based in an office on the new Grangegorman Campus in the city’s northern suburbs.

Two decades spent in an officially atheistic state has given Loftus unique insights into the workings of a Communist Party whose leadership structures have often been compared to those of the Catholic Church in the opaque manner in which senior leaders are appointed, dogma instilled and information controlled. 

Loftus’ father is from Ballina and mother from Belmullet. The family name is prominent on the entry to Ballina with the signage on the offices of a law firm run by his brother.

After primary school in Ballina Loftus spent a year at St Muredach’ s College before going as a boarder to Castleknock College, run by the Vincentian order, which he would go on to join on leaving the school.

“This kind of vocation is less common nowadays, but it was common enough then, 48 years ago,” he explained. After completing his first degree (maths and physics) in Maynooth he completed a second degree, in theology, at Heythrop College in England.

After one year in Ireland on parish missions he spent four years as chaplain at St Mary’s College in Twickenham (London) before coming back to minister to the travelling community in Dublin for four years. During a further year in London his interest in Asia was piqued.

“I saw a map of the Catholic directory for Beijing in 1947, it described a thriving Catholic community. At the end of the Cultural Revolution it was gone, and there was no news about the Catholic community was coming out of China. The Irish Vincentians had played a small part in building that Catholic community. But it was all gone.”

The Vincentians had been in China since 1699, part of a large French mission which had at various times held sway at the imperial court in Beijing. “I became a ‘China watcher’ when I was in London in that college it became possible to think about working in Asia.” Loftus volunteered when his superior general sought to raise a pioneer group of priests who’d take the Vincentians back to China.

Loftus was first sent to Taiwan to prepare for mission to China by learning Mandarin. To describe him as a missionary however is a misnomer. The Chinese Communist Party has long been deeply suspicious of religion and Catholicism, like other faiths, exists in China only under the supervision of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

Yet foreign religious organisations have in recent decades been able to enter China by responding to the country’s demand for English teachers. Others have arrived offering expertise in agriculture and social services. Loftus spent his first three years in China running an English teaching programme. In all his years in China Loftus would never seek to preach publicly and didn’t present himself as a priest on his visa applications.

Helping the church deliver charitable programmes was his other purpose. After his initial spell in mainland China he returned to Taiwan working for an agency support for small charities in China. “I did that for two years, then decided that model was over. Chinese agencies had taken that role onto themselves.”

Loftus instead became an adviser to one particular Chinese charity, Jinde, which he describes as an attempt to set up a Caritas-type charity,” spearheaded by an energetic priest named JB Zhang. As a Chinese speaker Loftus was able to bring valuable western expertise on fundraising and charity management. “I became very interested in the Internet as a fundraising model in China,” he explains.

Loftus and several of the priests running Jinde became a feature every year at the St Patrick’s Day Irish Ball, the proceeds of which went to the charity’s work. Loftus dressed in a business suit, the Chinese clergy in their Roman collars.

They’re there in photos with the Irish ambassador and the visiting minister Dick Roche at the five star Kerry Hotel in March 2008. This was possibly the peak of China’s go-go years, with Beijing hosting the Olympics and China’s economy returning double digit GDP growth off the back of a real estate bubble and an export boom.

Loftus wanted to engage a middle class emerging from China’s economic boom and “keen to flex their philanthropic muscle but who didn’t want to give the money to the government.” So committed was he that Loftus completed a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) in Shanghai and set up his own consultancy, Bricks, which advised charities in China. “Bricks was building charities brick by brick. When I finished Jinde was not ready for expansion I thought possible. By then I was working as a consultant to other charities.”

In China Loftus was officially a consultant, never a priest. The visa stamped in his passport said as much. “Having an MBA which I acquired in China gave me a certain credibility.” Loftus did however don his vestments each Sunday to say mass at the Canadian embassy in Beijing to an expatriate congregation. As the embassy was officially foreign territory Chinese nationals were forbidden entry to the Mass. This, explained Loftus, was also because of the risk to the host embassy that locals – or North Korean asylum seekers – would use the chance to enter the embassy to claim asylum.

Mandarin speaking Loftus doesn’t remember a single occasion during two decades in and out of China where he was warned off priestly activity by the church or government authorities. He is convinced the authorities were aware of his religious career but let him be as he didn’t seek to proselytise  – a crime in China. “A blind eye was turned. Anyone who needed to know knew I was a Catholic priest… I am sure in a government department there is a file somewhere with my name on it and inside they’ve written ‘mostly harmless’.”

“Within the Catholic community I had no difficult being present. It wasn’t why I was there. I was always a visitor rather than a priest. Yet as a foreign cleric I had a cachet among the local clergy.”

However much has changed in the past decade, since Xi Jinping took over as head of the Communist Party of China and head of state in 2012. Xi’s priority is reinforcing the primacy of the Party over all aspects of life. Potential alternatives to government control, like charities and religion, are viewed with immense suspicion by the men who run the Communist Party today.  

Jinde, having built a national presence, has since scaled back its operations. Loftus left China in 2018. “The challenges facing all charities have increased since the time I left China five years ago. Government policy struggling to find a role for charities. In a socialist environment there shouldn’t be any need for charities. But that clearly wasn’t the case. But that space has narrowed, especially for faith-based charities.”

Loftus departure wasn’t hastened by the crackdown on charities. “I came back to Ireland because at 60 it’s much harder to get a working visa in China [where the official retirement age in most roles is 60].”

But clearly he felt also that his role had come to an end. “I had a public role but that role for the foreigner has gone. There’s no space any more the foreigner dressed up as a priest conducting a charity auction selling watches.” He hasn’t stayed in touch with Jinde or the faith-based charities he worked with, “particularly because I’m not sure the presence of a foreigner is in their best interest.”

Loftus also wanted to have time to establish himself in Ireland. “I wanted to establish credentials in Ireland rather than being the returned missionary talking about China.”

There appears to be little chance for any expanded role for the Vincentians or any other western religious order in the increasingly nationalistic and paranoid China of Xi Jinping. And yet it’s the same Xi Jinping who in 2018 struck a deal with Pope Francis to normalise relations between Beijing and the Vatican, which had continued to recognised the authorities in Taiwan as the legitimate government of China after the end of the Chinese civil war and the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Communist Party officials’ red-line issue in the talks on normalisation was who had right to appoint bishops, a role Beijing insisted couldn’t belong to a foreign power like the Vatican. But the overriding priority of isolating Taiwan diplomatically led to a compromise agreement that gives the Vatican a say in appointments.

Today tensions remain. ’Normalised’ is too strong a word to describe the relationship between Beijing and Rome, said Loftus. “It’s struggling towards normalisation. It’s a minuet where one steps in and one steps out again. But the direction is valid.”

Criticism of Pope Francis for establishing diplomatic ties with China – and there was plenty from the conservative voices of the Church is not necessarily directed at the Chinese government but “…is often driven by other things for example a debate over whether Pope Francis is a force for good or bringing the church in a direction it should not be going in,” explains Loftus. “The alignment tends to be between progressives and conservatives.”

Loftus continues to observe “a struggle for the hearts and minds” of Chinese Catholics. The underground church, having come through the “extraordinary persecution” of the Cultural Revolution, remains deeply suspicious of Communist Party control of the appointment process for senior clerical appointments.

The schism between underground Chinese Catholics – who refuse to accept the state’s control – and overground or state-supervised churches continues to distract from Church’s potential growth in China. “Dissatisfaction hasn’t ebbed. The underground church now feel government has reneged on promises… Only with grave reservations do they begin to engage with overground church.”

The absences of a functioning bishops conference in China – the suspicions are too strong to allow them function as a single body – is distracting the local Catholic Church from what Loftus sees as a far more pressing problem: the impact of mass internal migration, and urbanisation, on rural Catholic communities. “The Catholic Church in China is a peasant church, it does not have a large presence in Beijing or Shanghai.”

Internal migration has emptied rural Catholic villages of youth who headed to jobs in mega cities, explains Loftus. “They’re working in factories making Apple phones without being integrated into Catholic communities in cities. Urban Catholics find it very difficult to accept peasants. The prejudice in general towards peasants is replicated in Catholic communities.”

Loftus believes migrants in China look for religion to remind them of home, not to help them integrate into cities. He sees a similar phenomenon in the growth of migrant churches in Ireland, established by Brazilian and other minorities. “When you speak with a rough South Hebei [northern Chinese] accent you want to be administered to by a priest from there, with that accent. There was a similar impetus for Irish priests following the Irish emigrants to America.”

“There has been some movement of clergy to administer to new city communities and that is a shift but the process that should be in place to minister to the migrants is very patchy.”

While the Catholic population in China is growing its flock is not increasing at the levels of the Protestant churches which have sprouted across the county. 

Loftus draws an interesting observation about migration and the Christian faiths which is perhaps universal. “The fluidity of the Protestant faith means it could respond; it was nimbler to respond to urbanising experience in China. The urban sophisticates looking for religion are more likely to join the Protestant church as it’s based on a book, they could pick it up and read it. In the countryside there was a huge increasing in [Protestant] healing ministries who came together too.”

“Catholicism requires a structure to exist. You can’t arrive in a village and set up a church. You need a priest and sacraments etcetera. Whereas an enthusiastic Protestant layman preacher comes to a village and soon he has a congregational style church.”

But this has also brought with it the risk of heresy, which, according to Loftus is an issue for Protestantism in China. “The Protestant pastor may be preaching doctrines from his reading of scripture which may not be in line with the mainstream Protestant church’s teachings.”

After 25 years in Taiwan and China Loftus declares himself pessimistic about further growth in the Chinese Catholic population due to the emptying out of rural Catholic villages. “This will lead to a fall in the local Catholic population before it stabilises and grows, he believes.

There has been little in the way of a wave of new conversions to Catholicism. “The majority of those I was dealing with were cradle Catholics,” said Loftus.

Officially, religion is tolerated by China’s rulers. “The government doesn’t encourage the faith but appreciates that it’s not going to go away. It’s about control. Religious groups always run the risk of not being able to be controlled…Protestants are seen as more malleable because there’s no reference to an outside authority.”

The government is similarly suspicious of Chinese Muslims to the extent that religion -rather than nationality – is their primary identity. Thus mosques across China have been ordered to remove Arabic-looking domes in favour of more Chinese looking structures. Government in some regions have also ordered the removal of church steeples.

Loftus is planning a visit to China this summer, having been prevented by restrictions on movement put in place by Covid prevented a visit in 2021. But he will go as a tourist, not as a priest. “Seeking to go back to China as a priest would be tedious and unnecessary process.”

In the meantime he gets to practise his Mandarin with students on the Technical University campuses. There’s a Presentation sister from the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou among the clerical staff.

What does he miss most of China? “It’s such a big country with so much going on that are world changing, it’s a very big canvas. It’s a quarter of the world’s population wrestling with huge issues.”

Having for so long lived as a non-priest he has embraced the freedom to wear the collar in public in Ireland which he sees as “an extraordinary right.”

Yet, ironically, after two decades living in an authoritarian state he feels a lack of freedom too in modern Irish society. “I’m perceived because I do that [wear the collar] I’m a right-wing reactionary rather than someone who’s very comfortable in a multicultural environment.”

Loftus feels he should be able to be present in the public space in Ireland without judgement. “I don’t feel Catholicism is allowed to be in the public space without judgement. A space is rightly given to minorities… [But] I don’t feel I can have a voice in the public space.”

This article appeared in the April 2nd, 2024 edition of the Western People.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *