Even in our technologically-advanced modern era, there are still places around the world whose names instill awe and wonder. Tibet is such a place.
The first European traveler to enter the forbidden Tibetan city of Lhasa was the Italian Franciscan Odoric of Pordenone in the early 14th century. He was struck by the profundity and exuberance of the Buddhists for their faith. He wrote to his superiors that he was convinced the devil must have confused these people who surely would have more appropriately directed their love and devotion to the Lord of creation and to his Son.
The decline of the Moghul Empire in Central and South Asia greatly benefited the Church. The Muslim Princess Begum Sumroo converted to Catholicism, thus paving the way for later missionaries.
In 1624, disguised as a Hindu pilgrim, the Jesuit missionary Antonio de Andrade arrived in Tibet. He impressed the king of Tsaparang with his piety, and the monarch gave him permission to preach the Gospel.
In 1846 Pope Gregory XVI formed the Tibet Mission and charged the Missions Etrangères de Paris to oversee it.
The history of the Church in Tibet is replete with persecution. But the Church has survived there for 250 years, despite hostility.
In April 1742 Pu Tsering, a Tibetan Christian, refused to bow before the Dalai Lama, throwing the town into an uproar. Twelve Christians were publicly flogged as a result. In 1905 Buddhist monks killed several French missionaries, and their heads were hung on the temple gate. The 11th Dalai Lama sent his emissaries to Yerkalo (also known as Yanjing) to order the Christians to renounce the faith. They slaughtered several Christians who refused to apostatize in what is still called the “Field of Blood.”
Despite such persecution, or perhaps because of it, there are currently 16 churches serving more than 10,000 Christians in Tibet proper and in the neighboring Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan.
Only Catholic Church in Tibet
After the communists took over China and invaded Tibet in 1959, the universal Church lost contact with Catholics there. In the 1980s, Tibetans and Chinese were once again allowed to practice their faith, but only in the government-sponsored church. Most Catholics refused to participate and started an underground Church loyal to the Holy See. This is not to say that the Catholics in the “official” Church are not similarly loyal; they simply give lip service to their government and keep their faith alive in their hearts.
I made my way to the mountains of Yerkalo. The town was clearly divided into a frontier Tibetan town and a dirty, bustling and soulless Chinese industrial section. Nomads and herders visiting the town to trade walked in the streets, their children, sheep and horses in tow. Many had never seen a European and stared at me as if they were deer caught in headlights. Like other nomads, these people carried their wealth with them; beautiful, thick turquoise and opal jewelry and chunky silver pendants and rings.
Actually, there are dozens of Catholic churches in areas historically settled by Tibetans, but the Yerkalo church is the only one in Tibet proper, as demarcated by the communists. The church is a faded edifice but still a magnificent statement to Christ and the human spirit. This two-story, 19th-century stone and wood Tibetan-style building has a more European interior, including Gothic vaults and a fresco-covered ceiling painted with scenes from the life of Jesus. I sat down trying to attract as little attention as possible — which was completely impossible. It’s not everyday that a foreigner visits Yerkalo.
The parish serves 600 believers, 80% of the village. Most are Tibetan, but there are also a few Chinese. The parish is fortunate enough to be served by two Tibetan priests, Fathers Lu and Laurent.
Mass started with singing reminiscent of heavy-throated Buddhist chants. When it was finished, children who stared at me throughout the liturgy descended upon me and greeted me by pumping my arm exaggeratedly. An older parishioner invited us to her house for dinner.
I was shuffled off into a nearby home and directed to take a seat at a rough-hewn table. My hosts set before me the largest pile of momos I had ever seen. Momos are Tibetan ravioli (yak meat stuffed in rice flour pasta) and quite delicious. Unfortunately, these good people offered me po cha (Tibetan butter tea), the vilest concoction under the sun. Imagine starting off with a poor grade of black tea and further ruining it with salt and butter. But, as the honored Catholic guest from abroad, I couldn’t say No.
John Paul II
As we all sat and ate, the host retrieved a treasured but battered photo of John Paul II. I held it in my hands and smiled at the woman. She took it back from me and touched it to her forehead as is the custom among the Tibetans. Everyone at the table similarly took a turn to bless themselves.
When the meal ended, and everyone was ready to leave, the host approached me with a hada (a white silk scarf). Tibetans use it as a greeting or parting present. As I was easily two-feet taller than this gracious woman, I bowed to let her place the scarf over my head.
The Vatican estimates 0.4% of the Chinese belong to the official government-controlled Catholic Church. An additional estimated 0.4% to 0.8% of the population belongs to the underground Church. But these numbers shouldn’t discourage anyone. They represent tens of millions of Catholics, more than the combined populations of America’s largest dioceses. After all, 2,000 years ago, there were only a few dozen Christians from an outcast and renegade Jewish sect in a far-flung province of the Roman Empire. Now we are the most populous religion in world history and comprise more than a third of the planet’s population.
My new friends walked me to the bus station, and I took my leave of Yerkalo. But even to this day, Yerkalo has never taken its leave of me.
Angelo Stagnaro is based in
Fresh Meadows, New York.
Planning Your Visit
Although this part of Tibet is technically the “subtropical zone,” Yerkalo is located at 13,000 feet, and thus, all bets are off. The air is remarkably dry, and it rarely rains. This area usually gets about eight inches of rain per year, and most of it falls during the monsoon season. The weather is always on the cooler side. In the winter, it’s downright cold. Altitude sickness is a major concern as is high exposure to unfiltered ultraviolet light. Travel in the winter is not recommended.
The nearest safe airport is Kunming or Chengdu. Other closer airports exist, but I wouldn’t recommend using them. The best way to get to Yerkalo is by bus. Mass is celebrated at 8:00 a.m. and noon on weekdays and at 8:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m. and noon on Saturdays and Sundays.