This Fourth of July, I’ll celebrate America more than ever before. Because I’ll be in China.

In April of 2005, we sold our family home of 28 years and moved temporarily into our daughter’s house for two months. It was great to be able to spend this time with our three grandsons. Then on July 7, 2005, we said good-bye to our daughter Kerry and her family, our son Ryan who is studying with the Legionaries of Christ and our son Patrick who graduated from college this spring, and we moved to China. My husband’s work has brought us to southern China for the next two years.

China is a world of its own. The country is harsh but the people are caring, attentive and sincere. It was quickly revealed to me I took some things for granted in America — clean air, clean water, the ability to walk around freely, and most especially the freedom to practice my faith.

God has allowed me to see three very different circumstances regarding Sunday Mass. In America there are many opportunities for Sunday Mass, even daily Mass. Fortunately, or unfortunately, you can find a Mass to fit into any schedule.

But Mass is a privilege we will only truly appreciate when we come face to face with God — or move to China.

Mass used to be a three-mile journey down the street for us — now it is a daily pilgrimage.

Daily Mass is a thing of the past and Sunday Mass has become a daily pilgrimage.

We can go to Mass in Hong Kong, which is approximately a 12-hour excursion for us. We leave at 8 a.m. and are driven one hour to the ferry terminal. We then pay $60 each (American) for a round-trip ferry ticket. We take a one-hour ferry ride to Hong Kong. We then walk around a bit, since the English Mass is at 12:30 p.m. We go to Mass, have lunch, and then return to the ferry terminal to take the 5:30 ferry back to China. Someone picks us up at 6:30 for the hour ride back to our apartment. We arrive home between 7:30 and 8 p.m. This might sound like a nice journey to take once in a while, and it is, but as a weekly regimen, it is very tiring, especially when you are working six days a week and your seventh day is spent just getting to Mass.

Our other choice is a 1½-hour ride to Guangzhou, which is on the Chinese mainland. There is a government church there and it has an English Mass at 3:30 p.m. The area is unsafe. To get there, you have to walk through a sea of very aggressive beggars.

We have been instructed not to give money because there are actual beggar gangs. Mass is in a side building, not in the actual church — which is being rebuilt because of its historical significance. It has makeshift benches and kneelers and three live trees wrapped in garland. The trunks of the trees go right through the roof and when it rains it also rains in the church.

The experience of the people in Hong Kong is quite different from people’s experience in America.

Americans have always been free to worship. Hong Kong was under British rule for 100 years, and they enjoyed the same freedom to worship as we do in America. But now Hong Kong has been given back to China. The Catholics in Hong Kong have no intention of giving up their freedom to pray openly.

Confession is offered before and during Mass. There is a line of people waiting off to the side, for confession, even while the current Mass is being celebrated. Mass is at least one hour and when it is over there are people coming out of the church and people pushing their way into church at the same time. Every Mass, English and Chinese, is standing-room only, and the church is not small.

In November of last year, they processed the holy Eucharist through the streets. In Hong Kong, freedom of religion is not something they can take for granted; they stay awake and guard the freedom they presently have.

Then there is the church in mainland China. There are some government Catholic churches, but they are few and far between. The real Church is still underground. The government church we go to in Guangzhou is also standing-room only.

These instances make me wonder what Chinese people here know — where religion is not so free — and what some Americans have forgotten: where freedom of religion reigns.

On July 4, take a moment to appreciate what we have in America. And never let it be lost!

Paula Lemieux

writes from China.