Pilgrims return to Sheshan Hill
Viewed from a distance, it looks like a cross. However, as we get closer, we realize that the figure hoisted on the bell tower is that of the Virgin Mary, represented in a singular pose, as she raises Baby Jesus up above her head, to show him to everyone as a trophy, as a sign of victory.
From the sanctuary’s tower on Sheshan Hill, 35 kilometers from Shanghai, the bronze sculpture of the Virgin Mary and her son overlooks the bamboo forests that descend to the plain below. The present basilica, the only one with this title in all of China, was built on top of the hill between 1924 and 1935 under the direction of the Portuguese Jesuit architect François-Xavier Diniz. It mixes neo-Romanesque and neo-Gothic features and forms. Yet, long before then, Sheshan Hill had already begun to be imbued with the moods, tears and contentment of Chinese Catholics.
“When you approach Sheshan, you feel you have come home”, says Elder Peter Liu Fu. He remembers the youthful enthusiasm with which he participated in the May pilgrimages from Shanghai. With pilgrims arriving at the foot of the holy hill in boats and ships, along the canals that cross the fertile plain, and climb the sides of the hill seeking consolation and refreshment. Along the paths we find the statue of the suffering Christ in Gethsemane, the 14 Stations of the Cross and other small chapels.
Even today, Our Lady of Sheshan collects the prayers uttered by every mother who has come to the shrine to entrust to the Virgin her children and her sorrows, the petitions of every child who has come to ask for help for their sick parents. However, Sheshan is also the place where the past, present and future of the Catholic Church in China intertwine. Even from there, Mary has comforted and continues to care for the whole adventure of Chinese Catholics, with its wounds and healings.
On the hill before 1870, there was only a retirement home and a small chapel for the Jesuits of Shanghai, which had been built on the ruins of a Buddhist temple. At that time the rebel army of the Taiping, the “God worshippers”, followers of Hong Xiuquan, the visionary who presented himself as Jesus' younger brother, was looming over Shanghai. The Jesuits invoked the Virgin's protection, demanding that Shanghai be spared from the devastation of the rebels. Then, having escaped danger, in 1871 they began to build the first Marian shrine on Sheshan. In June 1924, while work on the new church was beginning, the 25 bishops who took part in the so-called “Shanghai Council”, convened by the apostolic delegate Celso Costantini to mark the beginning of a local Chinese Church, which was no longer totally dependent on the leadership of foreign missionaries, ascended to Sheshan.
Then, in 1946, the bronze statue of Mary lifting up the baby Jesus, known as Our Lady of Zo-sé, was hoisted onto the bell tower. In the meantime, the times became gloomy. When the Japanese occupation ended, the civil war between communists and nationalists resumed. Then, new tribulations arrived in the “New China” of Mao Zedong. In 1954, Ignatius Gong Pingmei, the bishop of Shanghai, who had already been targeted by the apparatus, heard the hurricane approaching, went up to the sanctuary of Sheshan with all the priests of his diocese, and all together swore never to betray the faith and the Church, with the help of the Virgin. Soon afterwards, almost all of them were arrested.
During the disrupting years of the Cultural Revolution, Sheshan also appeared as a wasteland. The broken stained glass windows, the stations of the “Via dolorosa [Sorrowful Way] uprooted. They also pulled down the statue of Mary and her Son. Faith was kept in hearts, waiting for better times.
When Deng Xiaoping led China out of the follies of the Cultural Revolution, churches were reopened. The Jesuit Aloysius Jin Luxian, who was then released from prison and ordained bishop without the consent of the Holy See, chose to establish the Regional Seminary on Sheshan Hill. This too was paid for with government money, and which opened its doors in September 1986 to 115 seminarians. This is a sign that the persecution had tested hearts, sowed discord among the brothers, and left controversial and painful legacies, but had not extinguished faith.
Sheshan came back to life with prayers and pilgrims too. On May 1, 2000, Jin again presided over the ceremony with which the almost four meter tall bronze statue of Our Lady of Zo-sé was once again hoisted onto the bell tower, towering above the horizon from the hill.
Even in recent years, Our Lady of Sheshan has comforted the patience of God’s faithful people in the face of new trials. Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the young bishop of Shanghai, was ordained in 2012 and immediately fell into disgrace in the eyes of the government. On the very day of his episcopal ordination, Bishop Thaddeus had expressed the desire to abandon the positions he had held until then in official bodies dictated by Chinese religious policy, to devote himself to pastoral work completely.
The bureaucratic apparatus resented that move, and immediately prevented Ma Daqin from exercising his episcopal ministry. For so long, he continued to write and spread spiritual thoughts and reflections from the seminary, born in the proximity of Our Lady of Sheshan. From there all this took place, where a bishop who comforted and guided the diocese with simple writings spread from a shrine.
In 2020, the crowds of May pilgrimages could not get to Sheshan because of the pandemic. Today, devoid of the pandemic, the pilgrims have begun to gradually return. From Sheshan they have seen other storms, they have learned patience and expectation.
by Gianni Valente
Holy Mother in China
Holder Mary, Help of Christians
Architect Alphonse Frédéric De Moerloose
Architectural style Romanesque Art
First church 1863
Current construction 1925-1935