By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published November 30, 2006
Sabrina Mao was born into a loving Buddhist Chinese family that moved to Taiwan from China in 1948 right before the communist takeover of her homeland. In college at the National Taiwan University she was inspired by her Jesuit sociology professor and Catholic missionaries, never forgetting their loving witness.
She recalls the priest and nun foreign missionaries clad in clerics and habits, who “were beautiful people who loved and served the Chinese with their sincere heart.” Her sociology professor, Father Albert O’Hara, SJ, always had a smile and rode his bike to school daily, and was eager to introduce them to God. “When I saw they are so nice to the Chinese I thought I am Chinese and I don’t even love Chinese people like you do. By talking to them I saw that it was because of God, and I told myself if I ever need God I will have their God.”
She came to the United States in 1967, winning a scholarship for graduate study in sociology at the University of New Hampshire. She experienced baptism in the Christian faith, but after 12 years of marriage her husband left her in 1979. With no support or place to go, she “lived in tears for three years” without a sense of meaning. One day while driving she realized she needed to focus on her growing daughter and said out loud, “Lord, if you lead, I will follow.” She remembered the priests and nuns back home and visited a Catholic church in desperation, and felt comfort and peace. She knew she belonged there.
“I went to church. I cried and cried. That’s where I found God,” Mao said. “It was through the divorce and tragedy, that’s why I sought God. He has been so faithful. He gives me the unquenchable thirst for knowledge of God.”
She joined a church in South Carolina where she was living, sang in the choir and stayed after Mass for an education class, as she never had religious training growing up. “I continued to seek, to learn and to walk with the Lord.”
After attending a Cursillo retreat weekend, she enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and was confirmed in the Catholic Church, and went on to serve in the RCIA program at St. Ann’s Church in Marietta for nearly 20 years. To become more qualified, she earned a master’s degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University in New Orleans in 1998 and also became certified through Spring Hill College as a spiritual director. And she is now the delegate to Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory for the Atlanta Archdiocese’s Chinese Catholic community.
The Chinese Catholic community in the archdiocese, established in 1990, pays to fly in Chinese priests from around the United States each week to celebrate Sunday Mass at All Saints Church in Dunwoody. Most Chinese priests are earning advanced degrees in the United States through a training program sponsored by the Maryknoll Society and other organizations or are here on sabbatical. There are no Chinese priests in the Atlanta Archdiocese, but the community hopes someday to receive a permanent priest. The community also holds twice monthly Saturday evening Bible studies and on the fourth Sunday of the month celebrates birthdays in the community of about 100 families and has a family gathering with a meal.
During the U.S. Catholic China Bureau conference held Nov. 3-5 in Norcross, the local community provided entertainment, including a drum dance, martial arts demonstrations and a lantern dance, a Chinese folk dance connected with the Lantern Festival on the 15th day in January of the lunar calendar, which is 15 days after the Chinese New Year. A musician played an erhu, a traditional instrument like a violin, and Chinese choir members sang.
Mao stays close to her Chinese roots and plans to visit China next year, visiting a sister in Shanghai and maybe taking erhu lessons.
She said the Chinese Catholics in the archdiocese also hope to someday have their own church building, as on feasts such as Easter there is no space available for them to celebrate Mass at All Saints. For the past two years they have held Holy Thursday and Good Friday services in the yard of a community member’s home.
The majority are immigrants from China and Taiwan and Hong Kong, but there are also members of Chinese heritage from other parts of Asia. Many, like her, came to the United States for graduate school and are professionals, and many work in the computer field and other technology-related industries. Most of the youth can speak Chinese because “most of the Chinese families still speak Chinese at home.”
On one Sunday of the month, Mass is celebrated in English and Mandarin, with teens helping lead the liturgy, and the other liturgies are in the Chinese dialects of Mandarin and Cantonese. After Mass the visiting priest leads a reflection. The community began an RCIA program in 1997 and has welcomed 60 people into the church.
As the Chinese have great respect for their elders, it’s particularly important for those seniors with limited English skills to have Chinese Mass, or they likely wouldn’t attend English Mass regularly.
“I think it’s very important because … we have our culture and heritage and … a lot of the elderly people don’t speak English that well,” Mao said. She estimated that tens of thousands live in the area. “I think it will be ideal if we could have a Chinese-speaking priest to minister to the community, and I think if we do, our community will grow very fast like the Vietnamese or Korean community.”
The community also gathers yearly at a retreat center for a “summer camp” for adults and children. Mao noted that following Chinese culture parents rarely use babysitters and always like to bring along their children. The Sunday after this Thanksgiving they held a potluck gathering and for Christmas members will sing Chinese and American carols at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta and go on an outing to deliver Christmas gifts.
Mao attended the USCCB China conference and is concerned about the continued stories of persecution of members of the Chinese church, citing the example of Bishop Martin Wu Zin Jing of the Zhouzhi. After completing his second master’s degree in the United States in 2005, he was clandestinely ordained a bishop in the fall of 2005 and was publicly recognized as a Vatican approved-bishop in May.
“The communist government was at his door and said it was not legal and did not go through the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. They arrested him,” she said. “In the Chinese government there is just no justice. The church is still being persecuted.”
She also believes the Maryknoll program, allowing priests, Religious and seminarians to study here, is very important to improve the quality of training and education of church leaders.
“It’s good for them to be educated here so they know what the real church is supposed to be like,” she said. “Many priests of China they are third- or fifth-generation Catholics. They are wonderful people, but because of the special political situation they are in a predicament.”
But she also noted that there have never been any wars over religion there and people basically can choose their faith. She believes the Chinese are fundamentally spiritual people who want God, and who in the tradition of the ancient philosopher Confucius have great respect for elders, and value education. But to her “ it’s much easier as a Catholic. I feel blessed because I don’t have to search here and there to find God.”
Of her nine siblings, four are now Catholic. The others follow Buddhism, a religion whose central doctrine is the belief that correct understanding and the elimination of desires, gradually achieved in successive incarnations through meditation, righteous living and asceticism, will enable the soul to reach a state of complete enlightenment and peace. She used to discuss religion a lot with her father, a good Buddhist man, and recalled how they grew closer and he once commented that it seemed that the Jesus in her heart was similar to his concept of Buddha.
“I would tell my dad … you try so hard, you live a good life, but it’s nice to be Catholic because I don’t have to rely on my own strength. … God can help me to be good,” she said. “He was good. All good things come from the Lord. (But) we Catholics are blessed. We have a shortcut to the Lord.”
Her greatest reward is to share her faith with others and help them to know and love God and embrace Catholicism.
“My motto is ‘all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose,’” she said, quoting Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
She also feels called to serve the Chinese in Atlanta.
“The Chinese community has special needs,” she said. “It is my desire to also serve the Chinese community, and I hope some day we will be able to have a Chinese priest in this archdiocese and be able to have a Chinese church.”
The Chinese Catholic Community gathers every Sunday at 3:30 p.m. for Mass at All Saints Church, 2443 Mt. Vernon Road, Dunwoody. The first Sunday Mass is celebrated in Mandarin and English. The other Sundays it is celebrated in Mandarin and Cantonese. Birthday celebrations are held on the fourth Sunday. All Chinese are welcome. Contact: Paul Ku at (770) 623-1830; Sabrina Mao at (770) 565-1123. For Cantonese Chinese contact Daisy Tsui at (770) 579-0390; Tammy Chu at (770) 663-4033.