The Only Catholic Church in Tibet

(Remnant News Watch December 25, 2009)

Mark Alessio

In most people's eyes, Tibetan Buddhism is the “only religious belief held by the people in Tibet,” reports The People’s Daily (Nov. 27, 2009). “But in Upper Yanjing Village, Mangkang County, Chamdo Prefecture, eastern Tibet, it is not Sakyamuni [Buddha] who is worshipped, it is Jesus Christ”:

The Yanjing Catholic Church, built in 1865 by French missionaries, is the only one of its kind in Tibet and covers an area of 6,000 square miles. The church, a rare combination of Western and Tibetan architectural styles, has a typical Gothic vault and frescoes featuring the contents of the Bible on the ceiling in the inside, but looks like a common Tibetan-style residence on the outside. In addition to the images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, the church is decorated by red lanterns and white hada, a symbol of purity and happiness in the Tibetan custom.

Yanjing Village is located in a valley of the Mangkam County, on the border of China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. A ditch separates the village into Upper Yanjing, whose inhabitants practice Catholicism, and Lower Yanjing, whose people practice Tibetan Buddhism. The two religions enjoy a peaceful coexistence.  According to The People’s Daily:

The 1,000 residents of Upper Yanjing Village constitute the main body of the believers of the church. Catholics in the village still regard the Tibetan New Year's Day as the start for a new year; missionaries are dressed in Tibetan-style clothes; and the Catholic followers use the world's only Tibetan-edition of the Bible.

Father António de Andrade (1580 –1634),

first European to reach Tibet when he

crossed the Himalayas in 1600


Comment: It is good for Catholics of today to be reminded that there still exist places on this earth where the ready availability of churches, priests and Sacraments is not a given. Reflection on such locales directs our thoughts back to the courageous missionaries of the past, men who trekked to unknown lands and faced unknown dangers out of love for Christ and a redeemed humanity. In the history of Catholicism in Tibet, two names stand out: Jesuit Fathers Antonio del Andrade and Ippolito Desideri.

It was in the 17th century that Catholic priests began visiting Tibet in a missionary capacity. In 1624, Portuguese Jesuit Father Antonio del Andrade and Brother Manuel Marques reached the Guge kingdom [present-day Zanda County, Ngari Prefecture] of western Tibet and were welcomed by the king:

The first encounter between the Western missionaries and the Tibetans seemed an auspicious one. The Tibetans greeted Andrade and Marques with surprising friendliness. During the course of their meeting, the king and queen of Guge consented to daily religious lessons and gratefully received from the Jesuits an image of the Virgin and Child. So impressed was this petty monarch with Andrade that on the eve of his departing for Goa, before the mountain passes would be closed by winter snows in late 1624, he insisted that the missionary return the following year. (Hsiao-ting Lin, “When Christianity and Lamaism Met: The Changing Fortunes of Early Western Missionaries in Tibet” -- Pacific Rim Report No. 36, December 2004)

In 1626, Fr. Andrade and Bro. Marques built Tibet’s first Catholic Church, with the support of the King of Guge. In that same year, Andrade wrote his now-famous letter to Fr. Mutio Vitelleschi, the sixth General Superior of the Society of Jesus. This document is regarded as the first authentic report on Tibet made by a European who had actually visited the country.

The Italian Jesuit Father Ippolito Desideri lived in Tibet from 1715 to 1721, and is hailed as the first “Tibetologist.” He studied the Tibetan language, religion and culture, and translated a book he had written on Catholic doctrine into Tibetan. In an effort to better understand Tibetan beliefs, Desideri even obtained permission to study with the Buddhist monks of Lhasa’s renowned Sera Monastery. This dedication to both the missionary spirit, and the people to whom it is directed, calls to mind the North American Martyr, Fr. Jean de Brébeuf, who compiled a grammar and dictionary of the Huron language, translated Catholic hymns into Huron and even composed new hymns in that language.

Trent Pomplun, author of “Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri's Mission to Tibet,” described an interesting scene:

Ippolito Desideri arrived in Lhasa on March 18, 1716. As a result of his acquaintance with Khang chen nas and Don grub tshe ring, Desideri quickly gained access to the court of the Qosot Mongol chieftain Lha bzang Khan. Much to the missionary's delight, the Khan granted his request to preach the Gospel in Tibet with great enthusiasm and – if we are to believe Desideri's account – no small amount of paternal sentimentality. In order to facilitate his preaching, Desideri composed a small book explaining the errors of Tibetan religion and presented it to the chieftain in a solemn audience on January 6, 1717. The Khan took the book in his hands and untied its flowered silk wrapping himself. He then directed the missionary to sit next to his throne as he read the first few pages himself, occasionally objecting to Christians' belief in a single supreme being and their denial of reincarnation. A hearty debate followed and continued to midday. After considering Desideri's arguments, Lha bzang Khan decided the moment inopportune to make a decision about the future religion of Tibet; rather, he suggested that the Jesuit missionary hold a public disputation after he had become familiar with Buddhist philosophy. The missionary lost no time obeying the Khan's commands, which "agreed so perfectly" with his own.

Those “enlightened” souls of today who regard missionaries as rapacious invaders, eager to devour non-Christian societies whole, should reflect on the attitude of the ancient Tibetan rulers. The practice of debating has a long and venerable history in Tibetan monasteries. It was believed that debating deepened a monk’s understanding of Buddhist theology, and was used as a means for examination. Even today, established lamas debate monks, and those monks who pass the test move on to participate in the “The Great Prayer Festival Debate,” whose winners receive the Geshe Lharampa Degree (the highest degree in Tibetan Buddhist theology). Such theological debates can last for hours and are very spirited affairs, with participants striking poses and punctuating their points with loud handclaps. Compared to this love of inquiry, how insipid do those people appear who can do nothing but simper and whine over the “evil missionaries.”

The first priests to visit Tibet did not have an easy journey. They suffered from the cold and altitude. Traversing the Himalayas was no cakewalk. And, even though they often received a welcome from the powers that be, there were still many setbacks. Some missions closed down after only a few years. Some native monks were hostile.

And there was no immunity from persecution for missionaries in Tibet. The King of Guge had hoped that the introduction of Catholicism might counterbalance the influence of his political rivals, the Gelugpa “(“Yellow Hat”) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. After the king fell ill in 1630, the Yellow Hat lamas rose up in revolt. As a result, the royal family and Jesuit priests were imprisoned, church property was sacked, and Catholic converts were carried off into slavery.

It is difficult for a comfortable 20th-century Catholic to appreciate the faith and stamina of the missionaries of the past. They embraced hardship, danger and the unknown with a zeal that most of us would barely accord even to our most enjoyable pastimes. And, more often than not, their setbacks seemed to outweigh their successes to a staggering degree.

In Church history, the seeds may be small, but the harvest is what matters. The fascinating history of Catholic Tibet has funneled down the ages to this: ONE standing Catholic Church. The China Pictorial website describes it like this:

Perched on a hill, the whitewashed compound in the upper Yanjing gleams under the clear blue sky. But this church is no ordinary Tibetan-style residence, with a construction melding Tibetan and Western styles. A typical Tibetan-style exterior, ornate walls and colorful flowers in full bloom in the yard combine for a special Tibetan flavor. Hadas (a ceremonial silk scarf) hang in the church, two crosses are affixed to the outer walls, beautiful interior decorations feature Gothic arches, and a ceiling is painted with scenes from the Bible, featuring representations of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.


- Pope Benedict VXI Meets with Artists in the Sistine Chapel


- “The Hours of Catherine of Cleves” at the Morgan Library


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