By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published November 30, 2006
Although the Chinese government monitors everything Catholic, from seminary size to book publishing, a growing number of Chinese are catching religious fever, more universities are establishing religious studies programs, more intellectuals are becoming “cultural Christians,” and more students are celebrating Christmas.
These were some of the observations made at the National Catholic China Conference held Nov. 3-5 at Simpsonwood Conference Center in Norcross.
Speakers said the economy of the world’s largest nation of 1.3 billion people is growing rapidly. In its quest to modernize, Chinese society is increasingly focused on Western civilization and its values of human rights, democracy and the sciences. While the government is officially atheistic, many Chinese intellectuals view Christianity as the matrix of Western civilization. Materialism is also on the rise, but studies show a yearning for deeper meaning, so many feel the soil in China is fertile to evangelize and bring forward a Catholic moral vision to help build a more just and stable society.
Continuing the long missionary relationship between China and American Catholics, the U.S. Catholic China Bureau sponsored the conference at which about 75 participants reflected on developments in the church in China. Attendees included some of the 30 Chinese priests, sisters and seminarians in academic or formation programs through a Maryknoll-affiliated project.
Father John Wang He Ping, who is earning his doctorate in ethics from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif., before returning to China to teach in a seminary, believes Chinese society is in state of ethical “chaos.”
“People prefer materialism and human power, which is against Christian teaching. As a church we are to promote justice and peace to society, to inspire people who don’t believe in God at least to try to be just, honest and good people, real human beings. We still have a long way to go. … We have to fulfill this responsibility,” he said.
In the 1950s the communist government established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and a government-recognized “Catholic church” that officially spurns ties with the Vatican. For several years Catholic churches were closed and for decades there has been oppressive control. The Catholic Church continues to struggle with divisions between the underground or “unregistered” church loyal to the pope and the open church, but in many areas the two sides intermingle.
From the late 1950s until the mid-1980s, the only Catholic bishops in China recognized as legitimate by the Vatican were those chosen and ordained secretly by other bishops in the underground community. Since then, however, many government-approved bishops have reconciled with the Vatican; new bishops are often approved by both the Chinese government and the Vatican.
The Chinese Catholic population has tripled since 1949, and in the past 15 years there has been great interest in vocations. There are now an estimated 12 to 15 million Catholics in the Asian nation, over 5,000 churches, 2,740 priests, 5,200 sisters, 1,380 seminarians and 1,600 sisters in formation.
The bureau was established in 1989 as a joint initiative of the Jesuits and Maryknoll. Board member Sister Janet Carroll, MM, said it focuses on educating U.S. Catholics about China and acts as a liaison to the church in China, supporting initiatives in the United States on its behalf. A goal is “to enable the church in China to stand up on its own two feet and be evangelizing agents to the Chinese people.”
“It’s a living, dynamic church that is growing, developing, and suffering,” she said. “There’s a hunger for meaning and purpose.”
Sister Janet noted that Maryknoll and other orders were founded in the early 1900s largely to minister in China. While they generally aren’t allowed to open any Catholic schools except seminaries, they do have health and social services, preschools and camps. One program the bureau supports sends educators to China to teach in universities and other tertiary educational institutions where their “life and service is a witness.” She said that as the Chinese government cuts back on social programs, the church is challenged to fill the gaps and expand its charitable outreach.
Dr. Enoch Wan, a professor of intercultural studies at Western Seminary in Portland, Ore., spoke on the traditional culture and values in China through the end of the imperial government in 1911 in comparison with the traditional American mindset. The traditional way was politically imperial, agricultural, hierarchical, male-centered, family-based and relational, he said.
Americans love progress, look toward the future, and view time in a linear fashion, moving from an eternal past to an eternal future, which they can manage, he said, while Chinese revere antiquity, have misgivings about change, and see time as cyclical in accordance with nature and a belief in reincarnation. Americans might boast that a product is the latest, most advanced treatment, he said, while the Chinese might tout a product having an ancient formula.
From a faith perspective, the Chinese culture is open to the concept of Christian community, he said, because Chinese are interdependent and more defined by their relationships than by their work. Chinese carry a deep sense of shame and honor and could naturally grasp the significance of the fall of Adam and Eve, Christ’s death and resurrection, and redemption.
Father Joseph Zhang Wenxi, a doctoral student at Catholic University of America, spoke of how as China becomes more urbanized and people leave behind the traditional agrarian lifestyles for cities, many feel lonely and rootless. These Chinese can find comfort in how Jesus, who lived and suffered to his death, also suffers with them and brings them hope, redemption and abundant life. Father Zhang believes that Christian values can contribute to the establishment of a more just, modern society as the Gospel focuses on the dignity of every person and liberates the individual.
“God’s reign sets a new stage for their life and history,” he said. “It envisions a human community in which the practice of love is more important than adherence to creeds and observance of religious laws, and it inspires people to live not just for oneself but for one’s neighbors as well … a way of self-sacrifice and self-giving love.”
He said that in China it is much more important to live one’s beliefs than proclaim them, so they must see how Jesus truly was perfectly moral and revealed God’s love to all people, especially the suffering.
“The most essential thing for the church in China,” he said, “is to present good images of Jesus so that there will be a whole new generation of God’s people who really live out Jesus’ messages (and show) that God is a God who shows his solidarity through Jesus Christ his Son. He loves, cares about and co-suffers with us now.”
Father Paul Shi Hui Min, a doctorate student at the Jesuit School of Theology, noted that this image of Jesus as a personal friend and savior is in contrast to how he was portrayed before the Second Vatican Council when missionaries brought an image centered on his power as king and judge, leaving many Chinese in great fear of their sinfulness. Father Min emphasized that the Chinese identify with the humanity of Jesus as a very humble, poor carpenter who was born in poverty, solitude and sorrow in a manger and became totally human to set an example for all humans to follow. As they contemplate his suffering to redeem them, they find hope to endure whatever pain they face. “Jesus’ example of the Passion journey teaches that everyone should go through their own passion experience in order to reach fullness of life.”
Dr. Jean Paul Wiest, associate director of the Center for Culture and Language in Beijing, a Jesuit venture, spoke on “Chinese Youth and the Quest for Meaning.” A survey of 5,484 students ages 14 to 27 showed that 9.7 percent were baptized Christians, but 21 percent identified their religion to be Christianity, as an additional unbaptized 11.3 percent have given allegiance to Christianity. But 51 percent declared themselves atheists and another 5 percent don’t know what religion is, reflecting the impact of over half a century of atheistic, and at times strongly anti-religion, education. Over 87 percent, when asked what will make them really satisfied, said a family full of love and 74 percent said finding truth of life.
Wiest said that “religious fever” that started over a decade ago is becoming more widespread, but also that in the world’s largest Buddhist nation, Buddhism is experiencing an “impressive” revival.
“The decline of the Marxist ideology especially among young people is widespread creating a tremendous spiritual vacuum that religion—especially Christianity with its emphasis on individual salvation—could fill,” he said.
Father Raphael Gao Chao Peng said the Chinese government’s one-child per family policy makes it more difficult for men to decide to become priests. The policy is hardest on the poor without pensions who need more children for security. At his seminary the government limited the number of seminarians.
“If I want to be a priest this year and there’s no room in seminary I may lose my vocation,” he said. And there is “no freedom to speak, you can’t address issues publicly.”
Despite church oppression his parents always used to tell him he’d be a priest some day. “If you really love God, you will answer God’s calling. He will give you courage to pick up the calling because there are a lot of challenges from the government and church,” he reflected. “That is what I was called to, to serve the people.”
He said that Protestants and Catholics are “good friends” as “we don’t have any time to fight each other. We are all trying to survive.”
Father Paul Wang Li Min, a doctoral student at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, is writing his thesis on reconciliation between the registered church and the underground church. “Some priests don’t accept each other. Catholic lay people have struggled, don’t know where to go,” he has found, so therefore “the church has to do the job of reconciling, to bring them together.”
He believes conditions will improve if the Vatican can succeed in normalizing diplomatic relations with the government. He’s encouraged by signs like the students’ growing interest in spirituality and Christmas.
“All the students on Christmas Eve go to church,” he said. “They want to know what the whole world celebrates.”