Survey Analysis on Catholic Practices During Qingming Festival

Graveyard (photo: CCD File Photo)
By Hua XieApril 27th, 2017

Last March 21, 2017, both China Catholic and Christian Times released the results of their survey, which included 10 questions regarding Christian traditions during Qingming Festival or Sweep Clean Day such as making offerings to ancestors.

Until 4:00 pm on April 2 before the arrival of Qingming Festival (also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day), 2,013 people participated in the survey hosted in China Catholic, amongst 86% of the participants or 1732 people, were Catholics. It showed a general picture about the practices of Catholics in the Festival.

By 11 am of April 3, 966 people took part in the survey hosted on Christian Times and 82% of them or 891 participants were Christians. The result showed the position of Christians about the practices in the period.

This article is aimed at analyzing the Catholic practice in the Festival.

At least 71% of the voters inherited faith from their parents and 29% are newly baptized believers.

From the statistics, we see the following trends:

Among those voters, 62% of the participants have gone to ancestors' graves during the Qingming Festival. In this year's Qingming Festival, 54% of the participants planned to do it. The number of people making such plan is close to the number of those who did not plan it. Does it mean that cleaning ancestors' graves is optional among Catholics? The phenomenon is not unique among believers of Christ. It is partly affected by the change in society, such as the decline in the importance of traditions and the fact that many migrant workers in the city cannot go home in Qingming Festival. Although they may make offerings to ancestors at other times, such as during the Spring Festival.

Regarding the ways of remembering ancestors, 1,691 voters (84%) said they would pray for their ancestors and sprinkle the holy water, which is similar to Catholic ways when holding memorial service, offering thanks and making prayers for dead people. It is joyful to find that almost half of the Protestant participants have remembered their ancestors in a Catholic way if we calculate the number of middle-aged and old Catholics remembering ancestors. Our calculation is based on the assumption that Catholics would remember their ancestors in a Catholic way.

As for the other ways of remembering ancestors, we can divide them into two categories roughly. The first category is accepted by the church, which includes offering flowers to ancestors, burning incense, bowing down and kneeling down before them. The second one is rejected by the church or still debated upon by the church, such as offering fruits, deserts, cigarette and wine, whole pigs and paper money to ancestors. We noticed that the ways of remembering ancestors in the first category have been practiced by 40% of Catholics, especially offering flowers and bowing down. Some of the ways of remembering ancestors in the second category such as offering fruits, food and burning paper money are still practiced by 5% to 10% of the participants. Therefore, we should not ignore it. As for the practice of religious folklore funeral rituals such as breaking bowls, most of the voters (84%) do not participate in them, 4% were compelled to participate but felt it was not peaceful and 9% tried to avoid them. The remaining 5% to 6% did not care about taking part in these rituals. The vast majority of voters (93%) have also said that they have not set up ancestral tablets at home.

According to our analysis, we see that most of the believers today would not participate strongly in the religious rituals of remembering their ancestors except for the irreligious ones. It is worth noting that many protestants run into conflict with their family because they refuse to participate in family tradition. 

How to solve this conflict is one of the goals of our research.

Therefore, we have designed the question, "Do you know that the Pontificate has permitted Catholics in 1939 to offer sacrifices to ancestors?" and 73% of voters said that they did not know.

Combined with pastoral practice, we can infer whether believers know the permission of the Pontifical for them to participate in the traditional rituals, it may not have an important impact on their own decision. Meanwhile, the Pontifical permission is only a principle which cannot clarify all details of the various strange folk rituals to remember ancestors. Believers have to make their own decision in real life under different circumstances. This was reflected by how believers view offering fruits to ancestors. Some believe it is superstitious while others contend that it is acceptable to Catholicism.

Two questions in the questionnaire are related to this position. The first question is "As a Christian, do you feel superior / embarrassed / indifferent when you choose to not remember ancestors in a traditional way during the Qingming Festival?" 10% of the voters chose "superior", 34% chose "embarrassing", while most people (56%) felt "indifferent". The second question is, "Is it necessary for Christians to remember ancestors apart from participating in praying for them and make offerings in the church on their behalf?" 70% of the voters have given a positive answer. It can be fairly said that for most Christians, the memorial service of the church is not sufficient to satisfy social traditions or express their personal emotions towards their ancestors or deceased love ones. However, choosing not to remember ancestors in a traditional way is a part of their identity as Christians and it is a way to help them to stay firm on their belief.

The messages left under the questionnaire are worth noting. The questionnaire has been widely accepted in its entirety. According to those who left messages, remembering ancestors is China's traditional virtue and it should be included in the Christian faith. The church should affirm and advocate the practice of cleaning ancestors' graves. At the same time, many people left the message that Christians should stay Christian and avoid becoming secular in participating in superstition.

Limited by the form of the questionnaire and its length, we did not clearly define "remembering ancestors", which may affect some voter's understanding on the issue. The concept of "Ji", which means literally offering, also caused many Christians to be alert about its religious flavor, thinking that offering to ancestors is similar to offerings in the Old Testament and in Catholicism's Misa. Though originally, offerings and sacrifices implied certain understanding of the relationship between man and God, it developed its meaning in history. It then became to mean holding memorial services, in which people remember their ancestors and educate the younger generation. As a result, the church should make a distinction among them and explain to believers to develop and normalize their good behaviors.

The issue on whether Chinese Christians should remember their ancestors in a traditional way has been debated since the time of Matteo Ricci. It is also a great challenge for the church to become localized. As the church came to understand the Chinese tradition, its attitude towards remembering ancestors has changed from rejecting it to accepting it and from doubting to trusting it. Along the way, the church has also come to realize the difference between offering sacrifices to ancestors and fearing God and the distinction between cultural customs and religious rituals. With the drastic change in society, and the development of secularism and globalization, especially in the past half century, some traditional rituals have lost their religious flavor by becoming sheer customs. This then caused the church to open a wider arms to accept them or combine them with its traditions, giving them meanings in faith so that they no longer block the way for believers to walk their path of faith and deepen their understanding of faith, especially their understanding of eschatology.

Despite the fact the beautiful future for China's traditional rituals, which was well designed by Matteo Ricci, was disrupted by the ritual dispute, the spirit to localize the Gospel has been strengthened again after the second convention in the Vatican. Now, many gathering districts in China, including the mainland, Hongkong and Taiwan, can be more flexible and openly integrate traditional factors into rituals and among the Chinese believers abroad. Many Chinese-influenced forms of worship, including holy music and holy portraits, are used to express their identity. All these developments indicate that the cause of church's localization is actively going on.

Localization requires the church to continue to develop its own ritual expression, while accepting the treasures of traditional culture as much as possible so that it can meet the emotional needs of Chinese believers and it may not be regarded as heterogeneous, outsiders but attract more people in China. But this does not mean that the church needs to copy Matteo Ricci, it means the church needs to adopt the same spirit to care for the changing reality and look to the future. This gives the church another mission and that is to distinguish and deepen rituals' meanings in order to make its development constant and to shape Christians' identity by offering clear principles for them.

The final goal is that Christians can become the promoter of old virtues and the witness to new faith without feeling constrained or becoming secular.

Translated by Alvin Zhou

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