Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Mother of China

Mass in the hotel room in suburban Shanghai
I celebrated Holy Mass in the hotel room early in the morning, then repacked stuff and went down for breakfast. The hotel has a half-finished feel about it. The vast dining room had an array of vegetables, noodles, soups and other unidentified eatables. I wasn’t feeling particularly adventurous and nibbled at a few things. For some reason, I avoided the bacon.

View from the hotel room
The hotel’s free WiFi suddenly allowed access to Gmail via the mobile app. I sent a brief update to blogger via email. Nothing else worked. At 9:00 a.m., I was on board a small bus, heading back to Pudong airport. My Japanese friends from last night were in front of me and we shared brief biographical stories. (Mine always elicits further questions, as you can imagine).

At 9:15 we were at the airport. First task, exchange my Japanese Yen for Chinese Yuan, then deposit my check-in bags at the baggage drop. At the arrivals level, vendors from various kiosks yelled across the way at me. “Hello sir, hotel! Taxi! Phone!” I ignored them. I got a Chinese data SIM card (100 CNY for 300 MB. Daylight robbery, but I was stuck). The guy at the counter asked if I wanted to hire a car. I showed him the Wikipedia page for the Sheshan basilica. “Oh very far. 70 km.” He then quoted an exorbitant price for a taxi. I said I’d think about it. The price dropped 300 yuan. I walked away and for the next 30 minutes attempted to figure out if there was an easy way to get to the Basilica of Our Lady of Sheshan using public transportation. There was very little information available. Given the time and distance, I decided to shell out the money to hire a car, and got a pricey, but lower quote from another counter. 5 minutes later, I was in a Toyota minivan, zooming out into the concrete jungle of Shanghai.

The driver, Liu, an affable fellow in his 30s, had never heard of the Basilica. His English was limited. I pulled up various websites with the name and approximate address of the Basilica in Chinese. He worked both his phones. “Songjiang region. Yes. Sheshan area. You know?” Finally, several grunt-filled conversations later, a smile. “I have!”

Shanghai is not an attractive city. Everywhere there is concrete and ugly structures. The metropolis spreads as far as the eye can see. In the distance, a cluster of skyscrapers of the business district. Traffic slows us down for a bit. Near Hongqia airport, on the other side of the metropolis from Pudong, we turn south. Liu was very impressed that I was from the U.S. “Mei guo!” He laughed as I said in my broken Chinese, “wǒ shì měiguórén.” After having observed me praying my Breviary, he asks, “You smoke?” I said no. “Beer?” “Not really.” He smiled. “China people no … “ and he joined his hands together in prayer. In Asia, being religious is associated with avoidance of the pleasures of smoke and drink. This is true in India as well.

The journey takes 90 minutes and we arrived at 11:30 a.m.. Finally, after a stretch of concrete road, with one closed due to construction, a hill, and atop it, the Basilica. Next to it the dome of the Observatory, which had originally also been built by the Jesuits.  We parked at the base of the hill. From here, a 10 minute, steep climb up. The area is a city park, and was filled with local families. I was stared at constantly. At the top, a beautiful gothic church, the exterior lined with brick. The interior sparsely decorated. The front of the church was roped off. A thin middle-aged gentleman was giving a talk – presumably on the history of the place – to a group of teenagers. I sat in the back. Liu had accompanied me, out of curiosity, or whether as part of his job driving a foreigner, I don’t know. The talk went on. The kids were not really listening. Suddenly, applause and then more applause. I was nonplussed – in a church? And then, the guide started singing “Adeste Fideles” in Latin! Followed by a verse in Chinese. More applause. The group filtered out. I went up to him, pulled out my Archdiocese ID card, and tried to explain that I was a priest and wanted to pray. He let me into the front part of the church. I told Liu I’d be down in the car in an hour or so.

Link: Album with all my photos of the Sheshan Basilica.

I prayed a Holy Hour there, with lots of intercessions. Behind me, another group, and this time a lady guide. More animated and louder. She too broke into hymnody periodically. It was not a quiet place, but eventually, the sound faded into the background.

Outside, while walking around the basilica, a young girl, no more than 8 or 9, approached me, and asked my name in heavily accented English. Then she got her dad to take a photo with me. I asked where she was from, but couldn’t make out her answer. She then asked, “What is your Q Q number?” Or that’s what it sounded like. I had no earthly idea what she meant. Cell phone? A Chinese social media sight?” I apologized and said I didn’t know what that was! She seemed disappointed, but then waved goodbye and walked away.

By 1:30 p.m., I was back in the minivan. Liu asked me what I did and I tried to explain it. I’ve no idea if he understood. I couldn’t remember the Chinese word for priest. A few minutes later, “Kip!” he said. Again, “Kip.” It took me a bit to realize he meant, “tip.” He pointed to a box with papers and phone charges in between the front two seats, to a 100 dollar bill. “US dolla!” Apparently he wanted a US dollar tip. I smiled and said I would. “US people much money. 100 dolla good tip.” I assured him that he would not get a 100 dollar tip from me. He smiled. I napped the rest of the way back to the airport. It was past 3:00 p.m.

In 2008, Pope Benedict composed a prayer to Our Lady of Sheshan, soon after his 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics. I prayed it today. She is the Mother of China. The Church in this ancient land is under her patronage. She watches over her people, and slowly, hearts are turning and being opened to the Gospel of her Son. China, by some estimates, could easily become the largest Christian country in Asia down the road.
Our Lady of Sheshan, sustain all those in China,
who, amid their daily trials, continue to believe, to hope, to love.
May they never be afraid to speak of Jesus to the world,
and of the world to Jesus.
In the statue overlooking the Shrine you lift your Son on high,
offering him to the world with open arms in a gesture of love.
Help Catholics always to be credible witnesses to this love,
ever clinging to the rock of Peter on which the Church is built.
Mother of China and all Asia, pray for us, now and for ever. Amen!

(Tuesday, July 8) 

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