Yan Xu is an artist from the central China city of Wuhan. What she drew one day would change her life.
Confused about her future after resigning from a job in 2003, she found herself at an unlikely place.
“At that time, I used to carry a sketchbook and pen with me, and spent all the day time on urban sketching,” she told CNA. “I like to sketch the classical buildings of the city, and this is how I found St. Joseph’s Cathedral, which is built downtown.”
She said she found the Church to be “magnificent, beautiful.”
“I stayed there and then came back there to sketch my painting,” she said. “On the third day, a Catholic priest came and talked to me about the Catholic faith. For years, I had not cared about religion, and I wanted to know more about faith.”
“I attended the Mass every Sunday, and prayed to the Lord that he show me the way, even though I was not Catholic.”
It took her nearly seven years to be baptized, and she came into the Church at St. Joseph’s Cathedral during the Easter Vigil of 2011.
Yan said there is a sense in China that “more and more people are looking for a way, and for real life… the true life that is meaningful and filled with mercy and the glory of God. So, praise be to the Lord.”
“China is far from Rome, but Catholics in China always pray that the Pope will visit our land someday in the future,” she said.
Being a Catholic in China, however, means being part of a minority. Out of 10 million people in Wuhan, just 30,000 people are Catholic.
“The People’s Republic of China is a socialist country. Most of the people have no religious preferences,” Yan said.
However, the faith is lived in a very lively way. “I love my Church, there are so many wonderful young Catholics,” Yan said. “We often attend Mass, pray the Rosary together… the Catholic Faith makes me a better person.”
Among the main difficulties in living the faith in China, she said, is the lack of public holidays for Catholic feasts.
“Especially on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Good Friday, Easter Vigil and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. If you want to attend the celebrations, you have frequently to ask for the day off,” she said.
Yan always attends Mass on Sundays, serves as a lector, and is a member of the choir in the cathedral. She said that they can certainly celebrate Mass publicly, but this is “only permitted within the Church building.”
“We can’t parade outside the courtyard.”
Though Rome is very far away, she has a perfect way to feel closer to Rome: EWTN. “I watch daily Mass on EWTN every day. We can read the news about the Pope and the Holy See on the Internet.”
Aside from keeping themselves informed on the life of the Church worldwide, local Catholics try to take part in it as well. Some young people planned a trip to Krakow for World Youth Day this year, and St. Joseph’s Cathedral opened its Holy Door on Dec. 8.
“The celebration was very important,” Yan said, adding that she wasn’t able to attend because of work. “The Holy Door is a very important symbol, for Jesus said, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.’ People have to go through the Door of Christ to get the salvation.”
But the opening of the Holy Door had another symbolic meaning in Yan’s view, because “it connected us with the Holy Catholic Church. One, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
There are some tensions between the Catholic Church and the Chinese government, which has set up a parallel Catholic Patriotic Association that has sometimes named bishops without Vatican approval. Some Catholic clergy, including bishops, have been imprisoned for their loyalty to the Holy See.
There is some legacy of these problems in Wuhan. Yan said she always faces “prejudice from other people.”
“I would love to attend Mass every day, but I cannot, because Mass time conflicts with my working time.”
In 2007, she went back to school and took a graduate degree in art history. She saw this as “another way to help me be in touch with the Catholic faith.”
Yan has now created a special portrait of St. Thomas Aquinas. She won honors for the portrait in the “Veritas et Amor” international contest run by Circolo San Tommaso D’Aquino. The Italy-based cultural society is dedicated to the influential theologian, philosopher and saint of the 13th century.
Her portrait depicted Thomas Aquinas in the style of an illuminated manuscript.
“Thomas Aquinas makes me reflect about how to build the goal of my life, and find out the plans of God for me. In fact, the plans of God are often unfathomable, but you have just to pray,” she said.
Yan said she finds comfort in art. “Painting, or depicting, things of God is a special way for me to pray.”
This article was originally published on CNA April 6, 2016.
By Andrea Gagliarducci and Kevin J. Jones