China: Wuhan's International Catholic Community

Some of Wuhan's international community

Some of Wuhan's international community

This is the fifth exclusive ICN report from a Catholic - who lives in Wuhan and prefers to remain anonymous - giving a first-hand account of the situation in the city at the centre of the coronovirus infection.

Thirteen years ago in Wuhan, three overseas university students arrived at Holy Family Church to ask Fr Joachim Shu if he would celebrate English Mass for them on Christmas day. They were representing a number of Catholics in the city who did not speak Chinese. Having heard their request, Fr Shu readily agreed and the preparations began.

On Christmas morning as the Chinese Catholics streamed out of the church at the end of the early Mass, fifteen members of the international community moved to the front of the large church to complete their preparations for the next liturgy. The members of the newly assembled community sang the Christmas hymns and read the readings. It was a meaningful Christmas celebration for them in China.

At the end of this Mass they thanked Fr Shu for his willingness to help them celebrate the birth of Christ. However, they also made another request. They asked if it would be possible for him to preside at Mass in English on New Year's Day. Similar to their earlier experience, Fr Shu graciously agreed to their request and similar preparations began.

On the first day of January, the same fifteen Catholics from overseas gathered at Holy Family Church. Again an important day of the year was celebrated at the Lord's table for people who were far away from family and home. At the end of this celebration they could actually claim that their liturgical efforts had now spanned two years. Again they thanked Fr Shu. Again another request was made. In view of what they saw as an emerging need among the growing number of international students, workers and families in Wuhan, they asked if Fr Shu would be available for a celebration of Mass in English each Sunday. This was obviously a bigger request that the previous ones. Aware from his own experience of studying theology overseas of what it is like to be a foreigner in another country, Fr Shu kindly agreed to their latest request. The active involvement of these students in the preparation of the previous Masses seemed to him to be a good indication that there would be a similar level of cooperation in the future. He was not to be disappointed.

From such humble beginnings in 2006 the international Catholic community in Wuhan has developed into a prayerful, dedicated, welcoming, active and creative community of faith. Each Sunday of the year the community gathers for the celebration of the Eucharist at Holy Family Church. Once a month the celebration is in French. Each Sunday morning over 150 members of the international community arrive to the church from various parts of the city. Many are university students who are studying Masters or PhD courses due to scholarships offered by the Chinese government. Other members of the community are teachers who have come to China to teach languages in some of the city's 56 universities. Some members work in management roles at the Peugeot car plant and other industries in the city.

This international Catholic community in Wuhan is a unique expression of the Universal Church. The members are from the cities, towns, villages and rural areas of distant places in the world. Countries as diverse as Brazil, Kenya, India, France, Australia, Madagascar, Poland, Peru, England, South Sudan, Myanmar, East Timor, Togo, Ireland, Burkina Faso, United States, Tanzania, Italy and Nigeria are just some that are represented.

When the community began in late 2006, we would never have predicted that the year 2020 would begin with an experience of life as has happened with the Coronavirus. For four weeks Holy Family Church has been closed. Like all people living in Wuhan and other areas of Hubei province, the members of the international community need to live within the confines of their own apartments in a way that would have seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Like so many others, we continue to wait. We also pray that that those who have suffered so much will be consoled and that the upward trend of cases in Italy and Korea will soon be halted.

While the international community in Wuhan is unable to gather at the church, once again I find myself admiring the creativity that has emerged among its members. A Sunday reflection is written and sent to the members each weekend. As Lent begins, preparations have been made to provide website links to the members with the possibility of participating in an online retreat as well as novenas in English and French.

This level of creativity is emerging at a time when the community has already become part of the fabric of the Chinese parish in Wuhan. The members of the international community designate people to specific roles each year so as to look after the classes for those preparing for baptism, the choir, finances, liturgical preparations, charitable efforts and social events.

One highlight over the years has been the choir's Easter Sunday singing of Handel's Alleluia. Each time we are privileged to hear this masterpiece, we are lifted to a place beyond ourselves and are assured that Jesus, the true light, as represented by the paschal flame, has broken the darkness of death.

The creativity of the members is also seen in the fine magazine that is published each year, the retreats that are organized, the meal in the courtyard to welcome newcomers in September and meal in June to wish a safe journey to those who will be leaving China.

Occasionally there are visitors to Wuhan who have the opportunity to experience the blessings of this international community of faith. In 2016 Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha visited Wuhan and concelebrated and preached at the Sunday Mass.

In 2018 seven leaders of international missionary societies visited Wuhan and met some parishioners for a meal at a restaurant. It was a meaningful evening to see the Zambian-born leader of the Missionaries of Africa meet Catholics from Zambia in Wuhan. Likewise it was unique to see a priest who had lived as a missionary in Brazil enjoy a meal while speaking in Portuguese with a Catholic woman from Brazil. Multiple meetings of a similar kind were made with representatives of several countries. The Church's desire for shepherds to be close to their sheep was experienced in a unique way that evening in Wuhan, a setting where all were far from home but gathered as one people of faith.

Within all of these activities at Holy Family Church, the members of the international community also have opportunities to bring Chinese friends with them on Sunday morning to gently introduce them to the life of the Church. It is an important missionary dimension of this faith community's life.

A few years ago a member of the community who had been in Wuhan for two years was preparing to return home. When she took the microphone to share about her time in China, she told us that in the early days of uncertainty while settling in to the new surroundings of the big city, an important day was when she arrived at Holy Family Church for the first time. She said it was like arriving home, being in the place where one belongs.

The presence of an international Catholic community in Wuhan is a reflection of the change that has gradually emerged in several Chinese cities in recent years. International communities bring another dimension of the Universal Church to the Catholic Church in China. It is a positive experience in which the Chinese people warmly welcome the visitors.

During these anxious weeks, as so many people in China work long hours to restrict the spread of the coronavirus, the faith we profess is a faith that unites us in prayer for a timely resolution to a hugely complex issue. In all that is happening, we believe that God is with us and that a day will eventually arrive when we will once more leave our apartments on Sunday morning and make our way to Holy Family Church. On that day we will at last, for the first time in the Year of the Rat, gather as one to celebrate at the Lord's table.


China 4: Housebound friends support each other by phone:

China 3: Praying and waiting for the tide to turn

China 2: Knowing victims of Coronavirus infection

China 1: A New Year like no other in Wuhan


A big thank you for these reports from Wuhan, mind opening and inspiring and confirming that God loves us as a big human family which starts to blossom here and there all over the world, from humble beginnings, and then grows into an amazingly fruitful tree, showering His blessings on humanity. What a joy to see the picture of such a vibrant faith community. Thank you, and may the suffering the people in Wuhan have to endure at present strengthen and renew and sanctify all and bring about a glorious resurrection. Ulrika

Tags: China, Wuhan, Coronavirus

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