I'm not sure how we got word of it. Somehow, we learned that the Catholic cathedral on the outskirts of town, the big blueish edifice we cycled by every time we went to Kiesling's bakery or the old Friendship store, was reopening and that Mass was to be celebrated there this Christmas Eve for the first time since before the Cultural Revolution.
So a group of us bundled up against the cold air blown down from Siberia, hopped on our bikes and skimmed in formation through the dark, snowy streets, past the low clusters of dimly lit "old town" houses, past the walled factories, until we drew up outside the cathedral, which was blazing with light.
I hadn't expected the crowds of people. The inside was packed, not just every seat filled, but every inch of every aisle, corner, alcove, every little bubble of space inside was filled. It was the kind of crush of humanity that you won't have even dreamt of unless you have been on a subway in Japan or a city bus in China. People were spilling out onto the steps and the road outside, and they'd set up loudspeakers. I suppose our obvious foreignness (even though we all dressed alike in dark blue padded coats, our height and our white faces gave us away) provided an unspoken status, because somehow the solid mass of bodies shifted and let us through and allowed us to find a spot on a side aisle.
I hadn't expected the crowds of Chinese worshippers. It was impossible to tell if we were the only foreigners there; I didn't see any others. All I could see were - mostly elderly - Chinese people clutching their contraband Bibles.
I hadn't expected the Latin mass. And the congregation sang all the responses. In Latin. Fluently. And I have never seen such fervent, aching engagement with worship. Even though for anyone to kneel everyone had to kneel at the same time, like folding chairs, and we were all thickly padded with down coats and layers of long cotton underwear, and surely the elderly celebrants must have had bad hips and knees, everyone somehow knelt at the right times and prayed together with the most focussed concentration. The old man next to me had his eyes closed throughout the service, rapt attention on his face, his Bible held next to his heart but never opened because he obviously knew the words by heart.
I felt like a voyeur, a fraud, there only out of curiosity and a faint wish to touch something of my own cultural heritage out there where nothing was familiar. Yet it was impossible not to be moved, not to be swept up in the power of the moment, of the story. These people had been deprived of public worship for decades, and now, finally, on that Christmas Eve, were allowed open expression of their beliefs.
Those old people may quite possibly be dead now. Many of the students I taught that year were dead the next, killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre. But for that hour, on that night, the cathedral was filled with light.