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Imaginechina via AP

A Catholic church in Qingdao, China. (Imaginechina via AP)

A church in decline?

Why Protestantism has grown so much more quickly than Catholicism

A year ago, I wrote a story about the fiery, 85-year-old former Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong and his staunch opposition to an agreement between the Chinese government and the Vatican, which at the time was believed to be months away. The Chinese Communist Party cut ties with the Vatican in 1951.

Today, talks are stalled, as the two sides continue to grapple over how bishops are chosen: Should the ultimate control be with the Vatican? Or the government-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association? There are also concerns about what would happen to the underground Catholic Church, which in the past 70 years has faced intense persecution for their loyalty to the pope.

At a recent Mass dedicated to Wei Heping, an underground priest who died two years ago under suspicious circumstances, Zen reiterated the foolishness of making a deal with the Chinese Communist Party: "Dialogue is important and necessary. However, [the Holy See] is too optimistic about the communist regime. It has depended on its diplomacy instead of faith. It does not have a bottom line to reach an agreement."

In China, the Catholic Church has faced greater difficulties from the government than Protestants because of their direct connection to a foreign authority. While Protestant churches are growing in both numbers and boldness, Roman Catholicism is stagnating and even shrinking. The difference in numbers is staggering: Protestants numbered 1 million in 1949 (the beginning of the People’s Republic of China) and has grown to about 60 million today. On the other hand, Catholicism grew from 3 million in 1949 to just 12 million today.

In the Jesuit publication America Magazine, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ian Johnson examines the causes for this difference. For one, Catholic missionaries were slower than their Protestant counterparts in raising up indigenous leaders. So when the Communists took over and kicked out the foreigners, the Catholic Church struggled to survive as local Protestant believers stealthily evangelized and started house churches.

While Protestant churches are growing in both numbers and boldness, Roman Catholicism is stagnating and even shrinking.

The hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church also made it more difficult to grow under a repressive government, which requires unapproved groups to travel light and flexible. Even underground Catholic churches need their bishops approved by higher-ups, while any Protestant believer with access to a Bible (or a part of a Bible) could start a church anywhere: in a house, a farmhouse, or a warehouse.

Johnson traveled to the small Catholic village of Dongergou in Shanxi province, and found that Catholicism is still mainly a rural religion in China. As the villages empty out, the faith isn’t translating to the cities. They see Catholicism as a part of life they were leaving behind, rather than a vibrant faith for their new life in the big cities. Meanwhile Protestant churches are growing among the urban population.

“We do feel that in terms of expansion, we are not as ambitious and bold as Protestants,” Jing Anqi told Johnson. The 27-year-old Catholic had moved from a local small village to Beijing. “They can preach more confidently. But what we focus on now is trying to influence people with our deeds, not with our lips.”

Turtle-shaped rock formations: At every scenic tourist spot I’ve visited in China, tour guides love to point out a rock shaped like a turtle, a hill that looks like nine horses, or a sandstone column that looks like a maiden holding a basket. Sometimes the likeness is ambiguous at best, and I loved how author Peter Hessler described this phenomenon in his 2001 book River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze: “This is a ritual at every Chinese nature site; there seemed to be no value in the natural world unless it was linked to man—some shape that a mountain recalled, or a poem that had been written about it, or an ancient legend that brought the rocks to life.”




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Prison Fellowship

A Prison Fellowship volunteer skates with a child at Wollman ice rink. (Prison Fellowship)

A day on the ice

Children of incarcerated parents find their footing in Central Park

A New York moment: 

A cold and clear Saturday in Central Park is the right time for ice skating and hot chocolate. About 60 children eagerly hit the park’s Wollman ice rink this past weekend as part of Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program. All have incarcerated parents. 

Olympic figure skater JoJo Starbuck and other instructors were carving the rink to train the children, some of whom had never skated before but stayed on the rink for hours despite the unseasonably cold weather. 

Starbuck took a break from lessons to talk on the sidelines. Prison Fellowship’s president James Ackerman, on the other hand, was too busy skating with some of the kids to talk—“Every time I go around I’ll come back to the wall and answer a question,” he said. Ackerman said Starbuck had been going to Rikers Island (the city’s main jail) with the ministry.

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Breaking bread with Jews

A Sabbath meal with an Orthodox rabbi’s family

When a Jew invites you to Shabbat, never say no. I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in America, and I’ve never said no to anyone who invited me to a Shabbat—be it a lesbian “spiritual” couple or an ultra-Orthodox rabbi.

A while ago I accepted a Shabbat invitation from Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization. I met Rabbi Adlerstein at the 175th anniversary of the birth of William E. Blackstone, a pioneer of Jewish-Christian relations in America. Rabbi Adlerstein was the keynote speaker, and his introduction immediately caught my attention: “Forgive me, for I am a sinner.” Then he confessed that he once harbored resentment towards Christians. I knew right then that I had to interview him—and through a three-hour interview, I learned more of his story. 

Adlerstein developed a “deep-seated revulsion to anything Christian” as a young Orthodox Jewish boy in Manhattan who frequently met the fists of Irish Catholic boys on his way home from school. With his telltale payot (side curls) and yarmulke (Jewish cap), he was an easy target for anti-Semitism. His grandmother and mother were survivors of the Holocaust, and the young Adlerstein divided Christians into two groups: evil Christians who seek to hurt Jews, or annoying Christians who seek to convert Jews. He didn’t like either. Then the rabbi discovered through his work at the Wiesenthal Center that conservative Christians are some of the boldest Zionists. Soon he began studying the New Testament, reading Christian literature, and engaging with Christian leaders from various denominations—and realized that many of the beliefs he once held about Christians were inaccurate. 

Which leads us to my visit with Adlerstein for Shabbat at his home. At the table head sat the rabbi, and surrounding him sat the rabbi’s petite wife, his soon-to-be-married son, their Jewish friends, my evangelical Christian friend, and me. Together we lit the candles, said a sanctification prayer over wine, broke challah, then washed our hands for the feast—and what a feast!

Over four hours, we had matzo ball soup, salad, sesame-fried chicken, potato casserole, Chinese stir-fry, and two kinds of cake, all washed down with plenty of wine. By the sixth course (a roast beef so tender I could suck down the bones into juice), I lost count of the number of dishes. At one point I had to lean back and loosen my belt with a sigh. “We eat like this every week! That’s why we Jews have these,” the rabbi’s son told me while patting his belly.

That night, we discussed Leviticus 13-15. I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun discussing Leviticus, and I think the rabbi too enjoyed quizzing a couple of young Christians on our interpretation of the most law-dense book of the Bible. I decided to toss any proselytizing aside and simply collect as much insight and wisdom as I could from Rabbi Adlerstein’s incredible mind—and the self-proclaimed Torah “addict” was happy to oblige.

I learned that the Orthodox Jews don’t glean through their sacred texts like many Christians do—they dissect and agonize and argue over every word, coating every passage with layers of moral and legal implications. I saw that in their dress and observances: The rabbi didn’t shake my hand because I’m a woman; the light switches in his house were taped on because Orthodox Jews cannot use electricity during Shabbat; the lightbulb in the refrigerator was unscrewed so that it wouldn’t turn on automatically; and of course, the entire meal from the meat to the chocolate shavings on our cake was kosher.

Shabbat being a day of rest, toward the end of the meal, the rabbi dropped his chin to his chest and dozed off. His wife walked over and gently shook his shoulders, whispering, “Abba, abba, wake up. Time for dessert.” As the rabbi blinked open his eyes, the only two evangelical Christians at the table (my friend and I) exclaimed, “Behold! He is risen!” The rabbi, of course, got the joke—and to my relief, he cracked a chuckle.

Later, I heard one of the rabbi’s friends tell him, “I wasn’t sure whether to believe you when you told me you befriend Christians. Now I see it for myself.” For me, his statement drove home how precious that evening was. But I wonder if the rabbi recognized that our joke—“He is risen!”—also marks a key distinction between Judaism and Christianity: The resurrection of Jesus Christ fulfilled the numerous prophecies in the Old Testament that foretold the Messiah’s coming. Because Jesus died and is risen, Christians no longer need to observe certain Old Covenant laws that Jews still do.

Several months later, I had brunch with another Orthodox Jew who told me that the idea of “salvation by grace through faith alone” was hardest for him to accept about Christianity. It made more sense to him that to atone for his sins, he would have to perform certain deeds, such as fasting, doing good works, and praying three times a day. I immediately thought of the old favorite hymn “Amazing Grace”—an undeserved grace that’s confounding to many, but so amazing to those who accept it.

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