In Macau, churches are unlocked. Visitors can wander in and out of a dozen churches in a day, marveling over a dizzying number of stained glass windows, shrines to saints, images of Mary and even bones of Japanese martyrs. As if the churches themselves weren’t dazzling enough, several house additional museums of sacred art. Tourists who tiptoe in to admire church interiors during Mass catch snippets of Cantonese, Mandarin, Portuguese, English or Tagalog, and see nuns from as far away as Mexico carrying out their duties.
The tiny former Portuguese colony of Macau is now a special administrative region of China. In eleven square miles, the region generates big money for the superpower, as visitors can legally do something they can’t in the rest of China: Gamble. But despite the proliferation of casinos and accompanying vices, Portugal’s Catholic legacy lives on. Macau still has beautifully maintained churches, and Mass is celebrated in five languages. Approximately 28,000 Catholics live in Macau, served by 87 Chinese and Portuguese priests.
When the Portuguese first settled on the China coast in 1557, Macau provided a small bastion of Christianity on the edge of a continent. Jesuits founded Saint Paul’s College in 1594. This university taught theology, philosophy, Chinese language, and other subjects which prepared European missionaries to carry their message into China, Japan and other points East.
Macau’s most iconic image today is the facade of the Mater Dei Church which adjoined Saint Paul’s College. While people almost always refer to the ruins (the victim of an 1835 fire) as Saint Paul’s, Father Albino Pais insists on differentiating between college and church. “College was for the brain, but they needed also something to help faith,” he said. “So after the college, they created the church.” On a spring day, wearing a plaid shirt while sitting on a bench in Cathedral Square, Pais looks like any Portuguese man in Macau. But the priest has served in the region for almost three decades, and is passionate about the church, Macau and the world.
Before Pais left his native Portugal in 1985, he had only dreamed of traveling so far away. “When I came to Macau I said, look at this, God heard my prayer!” he said. To Pais, Macau felt like the center of the world, a crossroads of cultures and languages. And as editor of O Clarim, Macau’s oldest weekly Portuguese language newspaper, Pais has spent the intervening years providing Macau’s citizens with news and inspiration. “The paper is for information to help people grow in faith,” he said. “To obtain a Christian mentality.”
The ruins of Mater Dei are Macau’s most visited site. It’s a singular experience, to look at the massive façade of a church with empty space behind it. The façade rises in four tiers, adorned with statues and carvings which depict the history of Catholicism in Asia. In addition to the symbols one might expect – the crucifixion, saints, the Virgin – Mater Dei sports a Portuguese ship, a Japanese chrysanthemum and a Chinese dragon. In 1995, a museum opened behind the façade. Visitors can admire artifacts in a sacred art gallery, and visit a crypt which contains the remains of Japanese martyrs.
Not far from the façade of Mater Dei, several churches house enthusiastic congregations, beautiful statues and stained glass. Macau’s Cathedral is the focus of the church calendar, especially for Easter week, and is the end point for important processions. Saint Dominic’s, built in the early 1600s, is a gorgeous yellow and white church with green shutters.
The Chapel of Saint Francis Xavier is across the bridge from the Macau mainland in Coloane Village. Saint Francis Xavier led thousands of Japanese to Christianity before his death in 1552. Later, a backlash against Catholics in Japan resulted in 26 believers being sentenced to death by crucifixion and spearing. The bones of these martyrs, along with Saint Francis Xavier’s arm bone, resided in this chapel before being moved to the museum behind the Mater Dei façade. The chapel is still a place of pilgrimage for Japanese Catholic visitors.
According to a local Catholic, the current priest of Saint Francis Xavier has painted the chapel in unusually bright colors, and integrated such non-Catholic elements as Chinese lanterns on the altar. Some Catholic locals look askance at the décor. But in the tradition of the chapel’s namesake, the priest is attracting many Chinese converts, whose temples are usually brightly decorated.
The name “Macau” comes from A-Ma Gao, or the bay of the Taoist goddess A-Ma. In keeping with this focus on the feminine, Mary plays an important role in Macau. Almost half the churches are named for Our Lady.
The Chapel of Our Lady Guia (“guia” is Portuguese for “guidance”) was built in the early 1600s at Macau’s highest point. Beside the church stands a lighthouse, which Father Pais sees as symbolic, “taking the idea of our lady who is a guide to Christians,” as he phrased it. One legend says that in 1622, when the Dutch attempted a takeover, Mary emerged from the chapel and used the skirts of her robe to deflect bullets. Another version claims she wrapped her skirts around the Macanese to protect them.
A more recent event at the Guia temple was the 1990s discovery of old frescoes beneath the white interior. While using a broom to investigate a leaky ceiling, a churchgoer brushed off some white paint and glimpsed colors beneath. Since restoration, visitors can see a 1600s painting of John the Baptist, and a painting that combines Catholic imagery with a Chinese lion.
Despite the fact that the Portuguese population of Macau now numbers fewer than 1,000, Catholicism has a firm hold. Of Macau’s approximately 100 weekly Masses, the overwhelming majority are in Cantonese. But Portuguese, English, Tagalog and Mandarin speakers also have plenty of opportunities to attend Mass. And tourists are always welcome.