Wong How Man
Cizhong, Yunnan - 12 April 2009

Yao Fei offering communion at EasterFather Yao Fei sports a crew-cut and stands about five foot four inches. Despite his short stature, when dressed in a long white gown, he stands tall among his followers. Here in this mountain enclave, Fr Yao leads as well as serves his Tibetans devotees of Christ in a pristine valley along the Mekong River.

He has been here for just over a year, as shepherd to his flock in a village where 80% of the population is Christian, rather than Buddhist – a religion to which almost all Tibetans traditionally adhere. Yao’s original home is Inner Mongolia but he was trained and later ordained as a priest in Beijing 18 years ago. He became a Catholic at the age of 20 and is now 45 years old.

Fr Yao was rushing around as I followed him outside the church courtyard. With a straw broom, he brushed aside pieces of trash left and right of the cobbled-stone approach to his parish. “I must hurry up as soon everyone would be arriving,” he said without turning his head to look at me. With a wave of his hand, he asked me to pose questions at a more appropriate time, not when he was preparing for the high mass he was to preside over in less than an hour.

I obliged and settled back as a quiet observer as events unfolded during this Easter Day on the high plateau. The Cizhong (Tsechung) Church was started just over a hundred years ago, in 1905, by priests of the French Foreign Mission in Paris. Night service before Easter Sunday at the Cizhong ChurchThe French priests introduced the first vineyard into Yunnan. Afterall, they needed wine to say Mass, and thus began a long tradition of winemaking in southwest China.

Over the years, many priests lost their lives to hostility and harassment by Tibetan Buddhists and monks, so their numbers dwindled. In 1931, the French decided to leave. The Pope called in priests from the Saint Bernard Mission of Switzerland who usually lived on the high pass of the Alps, made famous by their gigantic rescue dogs of the same name. These Swiss priests, though more familiar with the climatic extremes of the Tibetan plateau, continued to struggle against both natural and human hardship in preaching the Gospel. The last priest to be murdered was Father Tornay of the Swiss Mission, in 1949. The Vatican later canonized him as a Saint.

Such were the hazards of evangelizing pagans of the Tibetan race in the fringes of Tibet. The founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 put an end to this work as all foreign priests were driven out of China. The last to leave was Fr Savioz, now 90 years old and retired at the Mission in Martigny of Switzerland. Running the Cizhong Church was left to a handful of young Chinese priests who had been trained and ordained by the French and Swiss priests.

Feng Jiguo is 81 years old and his Christian name is Francois. As a teen, Francois attended school to become a priest when the revolution led by the Communist reached Yunnan in 1949. He abandoned his priesthood study but remained a devout Christian throughout his life. Just as the service was to begin, we chatted in front of the church. In a crisp voice, Francois recited sections of prayers in Latin to impress me. He told me how excited and proud he felt when Fr Savioz sent him a letter by way of some visiting French tourists about a year ago.

Candle vigil in the Church courtyardMy team and I were here to film the ending of a documentary about the early missionaries to Tibet. Just a year ago when I was visiting Fr Savioz at the Saint Bernard Mission, we found an old black and white film, 48 minutes long, of the priests entering Tibet between 1947 and 1948. As there was no narration, CERS sent our filmmaker Chris Dickinson and Tibetologist Katia Buffetrille to interview Fr Savioz about the film in which he was also featured as a young priest coming from Europe. Now, the film is in its final stage, and I wanted to see how the church – which was started over a century ago – is doing today, especially during Easter.

Last night I saw about 70 Tibetans attend a special candlelight service presided over by Fr Yao. Today, more than 300 people showed up in church, including old folks and at least a dozen or so babies. Obviously, Christianity is thriving in this remote corner of the Tibetan borderland. Before the Mass began, many women and a few men made their confession to Fr Yao. As the Mass came to an end, I rose to leave. Behind me, almost everyone was lining up in front of the altar to receive Holy Communion. If Fr Savioz were to see this, he would certainly smile. Likewise Saint Maurice (Fr Tornay) would smile down from heaven, as he knew his life was not sacrificed in vain, but as a martyr who successfully brought the Gospel to the Tibetan plateau.