Among the thousands of people who came to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families were a number of groups from China. They came ‘unofficially’ because their State does not encourage such religious events, national or international.
When the Communist Party came to power it believed that, under a socialist economy and prosperity, religions would die out but that did not happen.
When the country opened again to the wider world in the 1980s, there were many thriving Christian churches and the government thought it wise to relax some of the restrictions. They even allowed individuals to do religious studies abroad.
But recently it has felt threatened by the continuing popularity of religion and re-introduced Mao-era rules prohibiting under-18s from attending church. Now religious buildings are required to display the Communist flag indoors.
Yet Christianity thrives and small groups of Catholics, despite the crack-down, took the brave step of coming to Dublin.
On arrival, they were surprised to see the negativity towards religion in the media here.
One of the visitors, a priest from the Chinese mainland currently studying in the USA, stayed with us and I tried to explain the situation. The institutional Church was unable to respond to reports of abusive behavior towards people in its care in the not-so-distant past. That opened up a credibility gap between ordinary people and the institution.
In China, the tension is between the government and believers but I hope he saw how the church too, as an institution, can alienate people.
In the meantime, maybe we in Ireland can better understand that religion is not the problem but the way it can become institutionalized.