Chinese Catholics begin new year by honoring ancestors


CHICAGO — Outside the wooden doors of St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church in Chicago, the piercing crackle of hundreds of firecrackers ushered in the lunar new year.

Fathers CheLong Bai and RunBao Zhang pass out red envelopes following Mass Feb. 2 at St. Therese Chinese Church in Chicago’s Chinatown as part of a kick-off of the Chinese lunar new year. A red envelope is a monetary or other gift given during holidays or special occasions. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

Then a bright red lion moved up and down the aisles in the church, dancing to the staccato pulse of drums and cymbals. After the lion’s performance, elementary school girls twirled around holding big paper fans in a dance in front of the altar. Then the Mass started.

Reading in Chinese from two big scrolls hanging on either side of the altar draped in festive red cloth with a golden dragon and festooned with yellow chrysanthemums, Father Francis Li proclaimed in his homily: “Whoever reveres one’s parents prolongs one’s life. Whoever obeys the Lord brings comfort to one’s parents.”

“Parents are important,” said Father Li, pastor at St. Therese. “Children are important. Life is important in our Catholic culture and faith. This is true for the Chinese culture, too.”

For the past two decades, St. Therese has combined elements of the Chinese new year with elements of Catholicism during the first Sunday Mass after the new year begins.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, Father Li highlighted some of the major points.

In the Chinese new year “there is an expectation for new things to happen, for better things to happen, for good things to happen,” Father Li said. “In that sense … that’s what our celebrations of Christmas and Easter are about. We celebrate the new life in God.”

He also said being with family was an essential part of the new year custom. This also includes those who came before.

After Communion, there was a solemn tribute to venerate ancestors. Three big sticks of incense burned at a table set before the altar. Offerings of oranges, traditional new year rice cake, rice wine and flowers surrounded the incense.

According to the program, the incense is a “symbol of our voices raised in prayer to proclaim our gratitude and love for God.” The fruit is offered in recognition of being the fruit of one’s ancestors’ love and of one’s children being the fruits of their love, while the rice cake symbolized “how God satisfies our hunger for him in life.”

At a lectern, longtime St. Therese parishioner John Lin read an introduction to the veneration.

He read, “We are not worshipping idols. We are reminding ourselves in this ceremony that we are the beneficiaries of the good deeds (of) our ancestors and we should continue their tasks by following Christ’s teachings. And pass it along to our future generations.”

Lin said that explaining this distinction was necessary because it wasn’t until the early 1930s, that the Vatican accepted this practice among Chinese Catholics.

“The missionaries came to China and saw people using incense, like today, doing this ancestral veneration. So for people that do not understand the culture they would take this as worshipping idols,” said Lin. “But in actual fact there’s a lot more to that because in Chinese culture it is very important to pay respects to your elders, whether they’re living or deceased. And so that is the interesting part … that concept is exactly the same as the Catholic communion of saints.”

The Mass concelebrants bowed three times before the incense to pay their respects. Then they invited the congregation made up of different races and ethnicities such as Italian, Indonesian and Hispanic and some non-Catholics to also bow thrice in honor of their ancestors.

Sister Muriel Cameron, a Religious of the Sacred Heart, called the Mass “beautiful.”

“I come from a part of the United States in the south where there is very much veneration of ancestors,” Sister Cameron said. “Family heritage is very important. … It’s a precious belief and as Christians we see it even more profoundly. And I like the idea that we honor the faith and the culture and the life that is already in people and see Christ in that.”

Sharon Wong led the planning of the celebration. The 35-year-old said that the even smallest details, such as the decorations, and Catholic elements were integrated into Chinese tradition.

“I think it’s a very great opportunity … for parishioners, especially Chinese to have something to promote our culture,” said Wong.

— By Simone Orendain