Our Trip to Beijing

Our Trip to Beijing 9th -12th May 2010
By Alfred Deignan SJ
Sunday, 9th May
On the Sunday afternoon 9th May, a group of 15 of us, good friends, boarded a Dragonair flight from Hong Kong to Beijing. We planned to go in the month of May as the weather was usually pleasant then, not too hot and not too cold.
More importantly our trip coincided with the celebration of the 400th Anniversary of Matteo Ricci’s death, which was on the 11th May 2010.
Our plane was full and we arrived safely at Beijing airport. What a huge, modern airport, built in time for the Olympic Games 2008. On disembarking we had to walk quite a long distance before getting to a shuttle train, bringing us to Immigration. The personnel were friendly and efficient. We then got into a mini-bus which brought us to the Jockey Club Clubhouse, with its beautiful Chinese architecture, very comfortable rooms and facilities. On the way from the airport I was impressed by the huge modern highways lines with tall trees. We got a little taste of Beijing traffic in this modern city. Tired after the journey, we had dinner together in the Clubhouse and then retired to rest and sleep.
Monday, 10th May
1. The East Church
One of the purposes of our trip to Beijing was to visit Jesuit related sites, so next morning after Mass and breakfast we set out on our first visit to East Church, called St. Joseph’s Church. This site has a very interesting history. The site was granted by the Emperor in 1655 to two Jesuit Fathers to build a Church. It was the second Catholic Church built in Beijing. An earthquake destroyed it in 1720 with its paintings by Brother Castiglione, S.J., a famous painter. It was rebuilt in 1884 and destroyed again in 1900 during the Boxer Uprising. In 1904 it was built again in Romanesque style and was closed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). It was reopened in 1982.
It was in this Church, I experienced a very moving few moments.
As we were guided up to the sanctuary of the Church by a volunteer to say some prayers together, word reached some women at the back of the Church that a group with a Jesuit priest from Hong Kong was visiting the Church. A request came from them, could they have the priest’s blessing. I went back to meet them and immediately they fell on their knees. I will always remember the joy on their faces after the blessing. I felt humbled in front of their strong faith, which they had kept faithfully through difficult years. We had a photograph taken with them, thus recording this beautiful moment.
2. The Old Observatory
We next visited the site of the Old Observatory. Here on the roof were some of the old astronomical instruments which were designed by Fr. Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J., in 1673. There was an equatorial armillary, the sextant, the altazimuth, the ecliptic armillary, the celestial globe and the quadrant. Astronomers will understand these!!!  Fr. Adam Schall, S.J., was appointed Director of the Imperial Astronomical Bureau in 1644, and for over 200 years, until 1837, more tan 20 Jesuits worked in the Bureau. Fr. Adam Schall worked to reform the calendar and with the help of Chinese experts it was finally accepted. This was science in the service of religion.
3. China Millennium Monument
Our next visit was to a building which is shaped like a sundial and was built to commemorate the Third Millennium. Inside is a huge circular room where the fresco was created to celebrate individuals, who made significant contributions to 5,000 years of Chinese History – the last one is Tang Sau Ping. Only two Westerners are included in the vast fresco, one is Marco Polo and the other is Matteo Ricci. We could see that Matteo Ricci is recognised as a major influence in China’s history.
4. The North Church
This Church originally was built on land given by the Emperor Kangxi to two French Jesuits after they successfully treated him for malaria, using quinine, once known as “Jesuit bark.” In gratitude he granted them a piece of land inside the Imperial City. He also donated a large sum of money for the construction. It is now the largest Catholic Church in Beijing. The Church was relocated to its present site in 1887. When we entered, we were very surprised seeing the number of Catholics praying in the Church. There was adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We stayed for some time joining them in silent prayer. I prayed for them and the Church in China.
I reflected on their strong faith which withstood the persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Beautiful trees lined the avenue leading up to the church’s impressive façade with its twin towers. We met a church volunteer, who very willingly explained the history of the Church to us and we also ran into the Parish Priest.
In the late evening we returned to the Clubhouse and travelled through Beijing streets. I was again surprised at how smoothly the traffic moved. There seemed to be no haste or impatience like in Hong Kong, where even a one second hold-up, demanded the hooting of horns.
That evening we were very happy to meet after dinner with a group of Wah Yan Past Students who were working in Beijing. Soon we were recalling “the good old days” at school and the many foibles of Fathers and teachers. Happy memories!
Tuesday, 11th May
1. Matteo Ricci Symposium
We had an early start in order to get through the traffic, to the University of the International Business and Economics in time for the opening at 9:00 a.m. The Symposium was launched by the Italian Ambassador, Ricardo Sessa. As you may know, Matteo Ricci came from Macerata in Italy. The Ambassador spoke of Matteo Ricci’s spirit and his significance in China-European relations. Others spoke of a different aspect of his life and influence, particularly in his knowledge of Chinese culture, philosophy and customs, and his willingness to share his knowledge of science,  geography, astronomy and of course, his Christian faith. One presentation which I liked most was Dr. Stephan Rothlin’s address on “The Spiritual Profile of Matteo Ricci” which has been seldom mentioned or commented on when writing about Matteo Ricci. His theme was the “Pilgrim” which goes back to the inspiration of St. Ignatius. There were over 100 participants, and I found that my appreciation of Matteo Ricci really grew as I listened to the speakers.
2. Visit to Zhalan Cemetery
After a sumptuous lunch we were brought to Zhalan Cemetery, which is located in the campus of the Beijing Administrative College, the Communist Party School for budding cadres. Here were the tombs of Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall and Ferdinand Verbiest. The plot of land was granted by the Emperor in 1610 as the burial place for Matteo Ricci “in view of the great merits of Li Ma Tau, the Westerner who had become Chinese.” Here we were, standing at the grave of Matteo Ricci, who died on this very day 400 years ago on May 11, 1610. The Italian Ambassador laid a wreath on the tomb and spoke again of his compatriot, and this was followed by a blessing and a sort eulogy given by Fr. Terrence Curry, S.J. One of our groups discovered something strange. The headstones on which were written the names, dates, etc. in Chinese and Latin were placed in front of the tombs. However the one in front of Adam Schall‘s tomb was turned back, so you had to go round to the back to read it. Why? A mystery solved?
After the official function, we had time to visit next door a graveyard where 63 missionaries were buried – 53 of these were Jesuits: 10 Chinese, 7 Italian, 8 French, 12 Portuguese, 2 Belgian, 9 German-Austrian, 4 Czechs and 1 Swiss. The Jesuits were very committed missionaries to China ever since the time of St. Francis Xavier.
3. Celebration of Mass in the South Church (Nantang)
This was the climax of the day. We went to the South Church which was built on land bought by Matteo Ricci for a chapel. In 1650, Adam Schall erected the Church of the Immaculate Conception on the site. Later in 1690, it became the Cathedral. During the Cultural Revolution 1966-1976, it was used as a toy factory. Now it is the Cathedral of Beijing and the Bishop’s residence. At 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon, Mass in honour of Matteo Ricci, was celebrated by the Bishop of Beijing with over 50 Chinese priests concelebrating. The cathedral was decorated and was full of people, including a large of Sisters. The choir sang in Latin, and the Bishop preached about Matteo Ricci’s mission to the Chinese people. It was a moving experience for us. After the Mass, we sat for a long time listening to the Vicar General of the Diocese give a history of Matteo Ricci’s life, and this was followed by a talk given by the present Parish Priest who said he was the successor of Matteo Ricci in the parish, and that we could see the fruit of the seeds sown by him in the growth of the Church and the hundreds of adult baptisms which have taken place in the Church each years.
We met outside the Church to chat with the people and take some photos in front of the imposing statue of Matteo Ricci. We returned, somewhat tired, to the Clubhouse after a wonderful day of spiritual experiences.
Wednesday, 12th May
This was our final day in Beijing – a day to relax a little and reflect and share our experiences. We were very grateful to God for all that we had received – the good weather, the companionship and friendship, the joy the spiritual experiences, the strong faith of the Catholics we met, the deeper knowledge of Matteo Ricci and his mission to share his knowledge and faith with the Chinese people, and some history of the many Jesuits who followed him. We were very grateful to all those who helped us, guided us and looked after us on our “pilgrimage.” We returned to Hong Kong in the evening feeling happy and grateful. The only damper was arriving in Hong Kong without my luggage. However it turned up the next day.
Our Trip to Beijing
By Alfred Deignan SJ
Sunday, 9th May
On the Sunday afternoon 9th May, a group of 15 of us, good friends, boarded a Dragonair flight from Hong Kong to Beijing. We planned to go in the month of May as the weather was usually pleasant then, not too hot and not too cold.

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