Pope Benedict XVI published a letter on May 27, 2007, entitled: “To the Bishops, Priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China”. In this letter, the Pope asks that Catholics throughout the entire world set aside May 24th each year as a ‘Day of Prayer for the Church in China’. In his letter, he wrote about the Marian Sanctuary of Sheshan near Shanghai.
Already back in June of 1989, after the massacre in the Square of Heavenly Peace (Tien’anmen) Pope John Paul II prayed to the Virgin of Sheshan, Helper of Christians, to “look down with love” on the “beloved Chinese people”. This prayer of the Pope underlined the importance of this pilgrimage shrine. Sheshan lies about 35 km outside of Shanghai. With its bamboo forests and its mild hill climate, Sheshan mountain has become a popular destination not only for pilgrims, but also for tourists.
The first missionaries settled on Sheshan mountain in 1844. In 1864, a Chinese lay Brother built a six-sided pavilion, in which he placed an image of the Mother of God that he himself had painted, and which he venerated under the title of “Mary Help of Christians”. In 1871, the Jesuits began the construction of the first church on top of the mountain and dedicated it to Mary “Help of Christians”. Since then, the veneration for the “Mother of God of Sheshan” has spread throughout the whole region, and every year on May 24th, her Feast Day is solemnly celebrated there. Half way up the mountain, there stands another church which was built in 1894.
In July of 1924, the Bishops of China consecrated the whole country to the Mother of God and at the conclusion of their gathering, they all went in pilgrimage to Sheshan. In 1925, construction was begun on a new Marian Basilica on the summit of the mountain. It was ready to be consecrated 10 years latter. The Basilica has a spire which reaches 38 Meters into the air (125 ft.), on the tip of which there stands a bronze statue of the Mother of God, who holds up her Son Jesus high in the air above her. Since the Christ child has his arms outstretched in blessing, from a distance it looks as if the spire were surmounted by a large Cross.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) the church was badly damaged. The original bronze statue of the Mother of God disappeared from the tip of the spire, as did other religious symbols and objects, including even the altars.
The government returned the church to the Diocese of Shanghai in 1981 and restored it. A copy of the original bronze statue was once again hoisted to the tip of the spire in 2000, a gift made possible by the contributions of some 10,000 faithful.
Now, year after year, there is a flood of tens of thousands of pilgrims each month, who come to the mountain to bring their personal concerns and needs to the Mother of God of Sheshan. They are mostly older people, but there are also young people, who together climb the steep slope of the mountain up to the very peak where the sanctuary stands. Along the way they pause at a statue of the “Suffering Christ” in the Garden of Gethsemane, and they also pause at each of the 14 Stations of the Cross. Among the faithful there are also numerous fishermen from the fishing villages of the area.
For the over ninety-year-old Bishop of Shanghai, Aloysius Jin Luxian SJ, the Mother of God has a very special personal meaning. When his mother was pregnant with him she became very ill and nearly died. "In this time of need she prayed to the Mother of God of Sheshan for recovery and promised to do a pilgrimage every year", tells the Bishop. Now he himself goes to Sheshan every May to pray for help. Only during his studies in Europe and his long imprisonment - he was being held in prison for 18 and in labor camps for nine years - did he break with this tradition.
Source: Holy Spirit Study Centre (Hong Kong), Diocese of Shanghai, Osservatore Romano, interview China-Zentrum with Bishop Jin.