Catholic International Community, Wuhan, China

Wuhan's international community

Wuhan's international community. Photo: Fr Dan Troy

Fourteen 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 several Catholics in the city who did not speak Chinese. Fr Shu readily agreed, having heard their request, 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, and 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. They could claim that their liturgical efforts had now spanned two years at the end of this celebration. Again they thanked Fr Shu. Again another request was made. Given 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 to celebrate Mass in English each Sunday. This was a bigger request than 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, the community gathers to celebrate the Eucharist at Holy Family Church, and once a month the celebration is in French. Each Sunday morning, over 150 members of the international community arrive at the church from various parts of the city. Many are university students studying Masters or PhD courses due to scholarships offered by the Chinese government. Other community members 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. 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 2020 would start with an experience of life as has happened with the coronavirus. In the face of the pandemic, the creativity that has emerged among its members is admirable. A Sunday reflection is written and sent to the members each weekend. During special occasions, website links provided members with the possibility of participating in an online retreat and 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.

The members' creativity is also seen in the fine magazine published each year, the organised retreats, 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, visitors to Wuhan have the opportunity to experience the blessings of this international community of faith. In 2016 Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, USA, visited Wuhan and concelebrated and preached at the Sunday Mass.

Columbans in China

Photo: St Columbans Mission Society 

In 2018, seven leaders of international missionary societies, including the leader of the Columbans, Fr Kevin O'Neill, 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 introduce them to the life of the Church gently. It is a vital missionary dimension of this faith community's life.

A few years ago, a community member 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 into 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 the anxious weeks, as so many people in China worked long hours to restrict the spread of the coronavirus, the faith we profess is a faith that united us in prayer for a timely resolution to a hugely complex issue. In all that is happening around the world, 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 to gather for Mass as a Catholic International community. On that day, we will, at last, gather as one to celebrate at the Lord's table.

Columban Fr Dan Troy lives and works in Wuhan, China.

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Comments (1)

  1. Barry Hussey:
    Feb 01, 2022 at 01:38 PM

    From March to December 2001, I worked as Manager of an RMIT EFL program at Wuhan University of Science & Technology. I met only one Chinese Catholic: an elderly lady saying the Rosary as she walked along the river. I couldn’t speak Chinese but my making the sign of the cross seemed to please her a lot.


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