"We don't intend to follow a church officially recognized by the Chinese authorities or an underground church, but a third way instead," said a male Catholic follower in his 20s, who goes by his Christian name, Jacob, in eastern Beijing.
Jacob was born in Hebei province, a region with a substantial Catholic population, and still lives there. Even though none of his family members was a follower, he became fascinated by the architectural beauty of Catholic churches when he was a student.
Jacob subsequently became interested in the religion itself, and began to visit a church in his neighborhood officially recognized by the Chinese government, as well as an underground church.
The man came to gradually understand there was a conflict between the Chinese government and the Vatican over the right to appoint bishops. Beijing criticized the Vatican over its stance that only the pope is authorized to appoint bishops, describing this as "intervention into China's domestic affairs. China has appointed bishops on its own. About 60 percent of some 100 Chinese bishops are appointed by both Chinese authorities and the Vatican.
Jacob was baptized in an underground church in 2014 because he felt that the church was loyal to the Vatican and followed its teachings. As he had been fascinated by what he believes is Catholic's "perfect beauty," in his eye, government-authorized churches were a product of compromise with authorities.
Earlier this year, Jacob learned that the Vatican and China were in the final phase of negotiations aimed at improving their relations. He has become increasingly concerned that underground churches will be absorbed by officially recognized churches, and that freedom of religion will eventually be lost.
Other followers told him that followers "must obey any decision by the pope," but he was not quite convinced by their advice.
While searching for information on the internet, he learned of the existence of a group of Catholic traditionalists that is active overseas.
Conservative priests launched the group in the 1980s, as its members were opposed to the Catholic Church's effort to reconcile with other religions as part of its drive to reform Catholicism.
While calling itself a Catholic sect, the group has criticized mistakes made by the Vatican and seeks to protect orthodox teaching. Jacob empathized with such principles.
"I acknowledge the authority of the pope. But instead of just blindly following him, I'd like to obey him while correcting any mistakes he makes," Jacob said.
A friend of his, who works in the financial sector in Beijing, has already become a follower of the traditionalists' sect.
"If the Vatican were to compromise with China, it would deprive followers of places to seek the right faith. We are a minority but there will be more people who will join us," said the man, whose Christian name is Paul.
Paul works in the Chinese capital's financial center where imported luxury cars travel along streets lined with high-rise buildings.
"While engaging in the most realistic work, I'm committed to this spiritual world. I feel it's strange," Paul said, holding a cross in his hand.
Paul, who has benefitted from China's growth, is not critical of the Chinese government.
"Jesus Christ said, "Render unto Caesar," and didn't dismiss the authority of the Roman Empire," Paul pointed out. Still, he admits that the more he is committed to the religion, the more difficult he finds it to live in China.
Paulo has three children. He says that under the government's one-child policy, he should have aborted his second and third children. However, he prioritized the Catholic Church's teaching, choosing not to have them aborted. He and his wife paid a penalty to the government for having their second child, while his wife gave birth to their third in the United States. The third child did not obtain Chinese nationality.
Paul is worried about the education of his children because President Xi Jinping's administration is attempting to strictly separate religion from education. At one point he had decided to move to another country with his family.
"The Communist Party is trying to control things more than the Roman Empire did. I can't even convey the religion's teachings to my children," he said.
(Japanese original by Keisuke Kawazu, Beijing Bureau)
This is Part 3 of a series.