by Justin Berg
Moving to China, I exchanged Americana for strange habits and challenging food. Though I didn’t depart a missionary, I knew I’d need Mass to ground me. My first Sunday at Sacred Heart, Ningbo (southern coastal China), I was dazed by the choir of worshippers. That was Sunday night, a Mass-time for workers who know no weekends. They sing! And how they sing!
Yes, there is a choir of 80 in the loft, and all – including a toy keyboard – is painfully over-amplified, but none of that deters the gang. There are several Chinese Masses, typically attended by 300 or more people each, and an English Mass with some 120 worshipers, at least half of them Chinese. The remainder is motley, representing every continent save Antarctica, and including faithful from Burundi, Uzbekistan, and beyond. Among us are Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. I’m always astonished how the assembly defies barriers of culture, language, and religion. We are actually a family.
Masses here are stuck with the four-hymn syndrome, and many of those tunes are 19th c. war-horses, both Catholic and Protestant, but there are also native tunes, pleasant, pentatonic. Hymns are never shortened: stanzas may be repeated, never cut! The altar is incensed at the entrance, following which the celebrant intones the greeting. From then on, Mass is chanted — Gregorian tones, sung to Chinese!
That’s a problem with orations: Mandarin is tonal, and chanting destroys those inflections. So, celebrants here read each oration, then chant the doxology, letting everyone sing “Amen”. Similarly, readings are spoken but the concluding responses sung, always to the Missal tone. The Ordinary is sung, even the Creed, sometimes to new Chinese melodies, other times to Gregorian ones. Masses VIII and XVIII are especially beloved.
At the Sign of Peace, people wrap both hands together and bow to their neighbors, a traditional gesture of respect. Then comes Communion. On a good day, the procession is orderly. When the church is packed, it can turn into a bit of a struggle. Despite that, everyone sings while processing. Long ago a church musician in the States, I had abandoned all hope of getting the assembly to sing during Communion. Here, they just do it.
The singing is neither artful nor elegant, but the Chinese love to sing, and these Catholics know why they sing. And they do it together in one great blast of sound. In the States, when the singing was especially hearty, a classmate of mine used to crow, “This morning, we had church!” Here, we have it every week.
Justin Berg lives in China, where he teaches English and Music and works as an editor and tour guide. Throughout his six years there he has volunteered at the local parish as music director and catechist. He is currently compiling and composing a new hymnal for use at English Masses. He holds degrees from Oberlin, Notre Dame and Duke, and is now enrolled at the University of Nottingham Ningbo.