CHIFENG, CHINAAugust 17
Do this in remembrance of me.
Yin Daoming tilted his head back slightly as he raised the sacramental cup toward heaven. It was only a drinking glass, but he held it as reverently as a golden chalice, and on its glossy surface he glimpsed his reflection-a serious young man with a solid, clean-shaven face. Many of the young women in the village near Shanghai where he was raised thought Yin would make a fine husband, only to be disappointed when he accepted his calling to the Catholic priesthood. A humble man, Yin likened himself to the glass he held high, a simple vessel of God's grace, an instrument for serving God by serving His people.
The glass, with its mixture of water and wine, glinted in the reflected light of candles arranged on a makeshift altar. The sacramental vintage at these clandestine services was typically a few ounces of the locally brewed baijiu-an incendiary 90-proof beverage. No obvious physical change could be detected in the rose-colored liquid, but Yin knew with absolute certainty that the miracle of transubstantiation had occurred-that what he held before him was spiritually the blood of Jesus Christ.
Yin lowered the glass to his lips and took a small sip, the heavily diluted baijiu burning his throat like liquid fire. As a seminarian, Yin had once asked his bishop if using such a potent alcohol for sacramental purposes wasn't in some way sacrilegious. The bishop assured him that although Rome might find baijiu a bit unorthodox, it would overlook certain local adaptations, especially given the persecution of the Church in Communist China. The Roman Catholic minority in the world's most populous nation found itself in a Darwinian struggle to survive, and it would either adapt or die.
The shades in the room were drawn against the hostility of the outside world. The earliest Christians had existed in much this way under the pagan rule of imperial Rome. Thirty-three members of the extended family in whose home Yin celebrated this mass knelt around the low wooden table that served as the altar. The youngest, a baby girl, seemed to have forgotten the brief trauma of her baptism and suckled her mother's breast contentedly.
Siblings and cousins waited patiently as Yin distributed communion first to the family elders. The celebration of mass was a rare event, and Yin labored to ensure that each service was memorable enough to be worth the risk of attendance. For a majority of the world's Catholics, the only peril mass presented was to their soul if they failed to attend regularly. But the danger to Yin's persecuted flock was more immediate. The government in Beijing viewed attendance at an illegal mass as an expression of loyalty to a foreign entity over which China's leaders held no control. The penalties for this crime included intimidation, imprisonment, and occasionally death.
Only the oldest of those present at this gathering could recall a time when Chinese Roman Catholics practiced their religion openly. Their children and grandchildren had learned their catechism in whispers and cloaked their faith in a mask of officially sanctioned atheism. In the countryside, people did not abandon the beliefs of their honored ancestors at the whim of rulers in distant Beijing. Nor did they behave in a way that might draw their government's wrath. The underground Catholics of China bent like the willows in the wind, but they did not break.
After distributing the bread of the Eucharist, Yin offered the wine, reenacting a ritual that originated with the Passover Seder Jesus shared with his closest friends on the eve of his crucifixion. The simple act brought Yin and his congregants into communion with a billion other Roman Catholics around the world and with God.
Yin had prayed in beautiful churches, but nowhere did he feel closer to the Creator than with those clinging to their faith against immense hardship. It was in ministering to his endangered flock that Yin truly fulfilled his calling as a priest and became, in the words of Saint Francis of Assisi, a channel of Christ's peace.
"This is the blood of Christ," Yin said reverently as he offered the glass to a boy just old enough to make his first communion.
The boy bowed his head respectfully and replied, "Amen," but barely allowed the scorching liquid to touch his lips. Yin suppressed a smile.
As Yin took the glass from the boy, he heard a metallic sound, the bolts on a heavy door pulling open. It was a sound he knew well, but not from this place.
"Wake up, old man," a voice barked.
Light flooded in and the sacramental scene faded, erased from his mind's eye by the intrusion. In an instant, the clandestine mass withdrew into his precious trove of memories.
Yin was sitting in the middle of a bare, two-meter-square cell surrounded on all sides by concrete. Legs crossed and hands palm down on his knees, he sat as erect and serene as Buddha. Only hints remained of the lustrous black hair of his youth, scattered threads in a mane whitened by age and hardship. Whiter still was his skin, bleached a ghostly shade by decades denied the warm light of the sun.
A thick steel door and a small air vent were the only suggestion of a world outside the cell. In a tamper-proof fixture recessed into the ceiling, a lone dim bulb provided nearly the only illumination to reach Yin's eyes in thirty years. He had long ago lost all sense of day and night, and of the larger passages of time-temporal disorientation being but one of the techniques employed against prisoners like Yin.
"I said wake up!"
The guard punctuated his command by jabbing the end of an electrified baton into Yin's abdomen. Yin exhaled sharply at the explosion of pain and toppled backward, careful not to strike his head against the floor.
"I am awake, my son," Yin panted softly, regaining his breath.
"I'd rather be the offspring of a pig farmer and his ugliest sow than any son of yours," the guard spat back. "Get up!"
Yin rubbed his stomach and squinted at the bright light pouring in from the corridor. His tormentor was a dark silhouette, and beyond the doorway stood several more guards.