China's Guangzhou goes Gothic again

The historic gothic Sacred Heart Cathedral in the Chinese southern city of Guangzhou is set to re-open after two years of renovation as authorities release official figures showing that China's population of religious believers has reached 300 million, including 40 million Catholics.

UCA News reports that the Cathedral which is inspired by Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral and which is the only granite Gothic church in mainland China, will reopen tomorrow with a morning Mass.

Commonly known as "Stone House Church" because its walls and pillars were built with large granite blocks, the cathedral is in downtown Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, 1,930 kilometers south of Beijing.

The third full-scale renovation in the cathedral's history started in July 2004. It included replacement of the roof and stained glass windows, cleaning and repairing of the granite walls, and reinstallation of a mechanical clock and bronze bells in the two bell towers. Meanwhile, the lighting, sound system and furniture were upgraded and more greenery was planted in the church compound. The previous renovations were conducted in the 1920s and 1980s.

Fr Joseph Gan Junqiu, who has recently been approved by the Holy See as bishop-elect of the Guangzhou diocese, told UCA News that the celebration will include a Mass, speeches by provincial and city government officials and a meal.

Ahead of the official reopening, Sunday Masses in Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, English and Korean, as well as weekday Masses, resumed at the cathedral beginning in December.

Fr Gan expects the cathedral's new look to aid evangelization in the diocese. "Local media have reported the cathedral renovation, and many people will be attracted to the historic site," explained the 42-year-old priest.

In 1996, China's State Council listed the cathedral as a national historical monument.

The cathedral was built over 25 years, from 1863 to 1888, with French missioners overseeing the work. It was inspired by Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but the architects incorporated two additional 60-meter-tall bell towers with octagonal steeples. With a floor area of 2,754 square meters, the Guangzhou cathedral is one of the largest Gothic churches in China.

According to Fr Gan, as part of the latest renovation, all the church windows are fitted with stained glass, designed and produced in the Philippines, depicting Bible stories and saints. Beside the altar is a pair of windowpanes portraying Italian Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and Catholic Chinese imperial official Paul Xu Guangqi (1562-1633).

The Gothic church suffered severe damage during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the Civil War between Kuomintang (nationalist party) and Communist troops that bracketed the war with Japan.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), some stone pillars and all the fixtures in the cathedral such as altars, furniture and statues of saints were destroyed. The church was then used as a warehouse.

On the wall behind the main altar are traces of the Cultural Revolution, which are being preserved as a testament to China's history, Fr Gan explained. After bricks had been removed and the wall washed, huge slogans in red paint were revealed: "Long live Chairman Mao (Zedong)," "Working class must exercise leadership of everything." Damage to the granite blocks still is visible.

Three times as many believers

Meanwhile, AsiaNews reports that an official Chinese government-sponsored survey shows that the number of religious believers is three times that previously estimated by the government.

The first substantial survey on faith conducted by two university professors and published on government media shows that Christianity is the religion that has grown the most over time.

Three hundred million Chinese people now believe in a religion, according to the survey which also revealed that 31.4% of those aged 16 and above considered themselves to adhere to some religion. The data was based on research conducted on a sample of 4,500 people interviewed by Professors Tong Shijun and Liu Zhongyu of the East China Normal University in Shanghai.

Those working on the report said the religion that has seen the biggest growth is Christianity: 12% of believers, or 40 million people, declared that they were followers of Christ. In 2005, Beijing said there were 16 million Christians while there were around 10 million in the late 1990s, always according to government statistics.

Asked about the reasons behind this religious revival, 24.1% of the cohort said religion "shows the true path of life", while 28% said it "helps cure illness, avoid disasters and ensure that life is smooth".

Liu said it was rural areas that were most affected by the phenomenon, even if this "was not a result of poverty as a large portion of new believers came from economically developed coastal areas".

The average age of believers has dropped: around two-thirds of those interviewed were aged between 16 and 35 while only 9.6% were 55 years or more.

Official survey reveals over 300 million believers (AsiaNews, 7/2/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Shishi Cathedral, Guangzhou (Wikipedia)

8 Feb 2007

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