I was baptized a Roman Catholic, just like my mother and father before me. As far as I know, everyone in my family is Catholic save for a few who claim to be agnostic. I have aunts and uncles who became priests, nuns, and monks. My grandmother sent all her sons to seminaries in hopes that one would become a priest.
I went to a Catholic school for my secondary and university education. I was a regular churchgoer, preferring to attend mass on Saturday afternoon or Sunday. I was active in my local parish’s youth group and made a lot of good friends there. Suffice it to say, being Catholic was a great part of how I grew up and who I was. It was something I never really had to think about since everybody else around me was like me.
It would take moving to Shanghai with no background in the Chinese language (save a few random lessons taken a few months before moving there) to change all that. First of all, I didn’t think I would stay as long as I did—almost four years.
One of the things I had to adjust to during my first month in China was the difficulty of going to church every weekend. I remember going to five churches all over the city and making a trip out of it. Shanghai is not a small city to get around in.
One church would have a lot of Filipinos in attendance but would be an hour and a half away by bus. Another church did not have an English service. I remember standing there, trying to piece together the service in my head. I was the only foreigner in the room as far as I could tell.
In the Philippines, one is usually never more than 20 minutes away from a church or chapel. Moving to Shanghai, I found out that church was something I should not have taken for granted. The church was far from my house and going was something I had to factor into my schedule if I wanted to go.
I finally found one near a downtown shopping street in the city. It would be one of the places I would frequent during my four-year stay. It was there that I would go when I needed to think and pray. I also came to know some people there and make friends.
I was struck by how friendly almost everybody was. Since only a few went to mass relative to Shanghai’s 18 million people, the community was smaller and more welcoming compared to the one I was used to back home. There were services in English, French, Korean, and Mandarin. And there was often a party with great food.
I would still try to go to church during special days like Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. I remember how people would give me puzzled looks whenever I let it drop that I was going to hear mass. The look seemed to mean they found me odd or quaint.
My foreign friends would ask how my week- end went and I would say I heard mass. My Chinese friends never hid the fact that they found the practice strange. One even asked me point blank: Why?
Practicing my faith in a country that believes differently made me hold on to it more and reflect on how it made sense in my life. It becomes something you believe in as opposed to something you just get used to.
When questioned, I would try to explain. But it was hard to make sense of something that seemed so foreign to them.
When the Sichuan earthquake hit in 2008, a staggering 68,000 people died. Women, children, hundreds of families were cloaked in grief. The government declared a moment of silence to remember them. I thought then as I looked around and saw my officemates looking forlorn with their heads down: What were they thinking? Who did they pray to in times of such a catastrophe?
I went to the churches sanctioned by the government with state-appointed priests. I heard rumors of an underground church with priests loyal to the Pope in Rome, but nobody I knew had actually gone to one.
Print ed: 09/11