By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published November 23, 2006
A scholar, two sisters, and an editor described at the 22nd National Catholic China Conference how they are each developing their gifts and answering their unique calls from God to strengthen the church in China.
Professor Rachel Zhu Xiao Hong, Ph.D., is establishing links between the ecclesial and academic worlds, while Cecilia Tao Beiling is editing and translating Catholic publications. With about 5,200 women Religious in China, Sister Avila Fu Hong Liang, SSH, is serving in formation for her order, and Sister Francis Xia is earning a master’s degree in social work at Boston College, after serving at China’s first registered Catholic nonprofit organization.
They described their risky, surprising journeys to becoming disciples striving to shape the chaotic society of their country, which is experiencing rapid economic growth and a religious awakening after over 50 years of various degrees of government oppression of the church. The conference was held at Simpsonwood Conference Center in Norcross Nov. 3-5.
Beiling offered insight into the suffering of many Chinese Catholics as she described how when she was 8 years old her schoolteacher announced that the Shanghai bishop, priests and seminary president had been arrested for anti-revolutionary activities. After that her schoolmates began to shun her because she was Catholic, and by 1958 her family could no longer attend church publicly. After the Cultural Revolution of 1965-75 began and churches were closed, she was forced after high school to go to a labor farm for re-education in communist ideology although she had excelled in school. After eight years she was transferred to a factory and permitted to teach at a technical school. When universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution, she was finally able to start college at night at the age of 29. She finished her bachelor’s degree in mathematics in eight years.
As registered, government-approved Catholic churches began to reopen, she didn’t openly practice her faith, but then she attended a Christmas Mass with her young son who wanted to learn the Nativity story. On another occasion she walked into a chapel and “it was as though Jesus spoke to me there and urged that our family become part of the registered church, in order to worship God openly and to help pass on the Catholic faith to the next generation.”
She was later asked to work in diocesan religious education, which she reluctantly accepted, and then invited to study abroad, where she earned a master’s degree in theology at Notre Dame University, after intensive study of English.
“In the 1980s I thought that our family would at last be able to live this settled life for many years ahead … but God’s ways are not like human ways,” Beiling said.
She relied on God as she was separated from her family and faced the great challenges of studying in a second language, having to read material four or five times to understand it, and having a weaker memory in middle age.
“These intellectual demands were the cross I carried through my time abroad,” Beiling said. “I prayed constantly to God that the Holy Spirit might open my mind and give me strength to complete my tasks. … Again Jesus Christ was my strength; he listened to my prayers and helped me to overcome these difficulties again and again.”
She went on to graduate with honors and returned to Shanghai where the bishop asked her to work at the Guang Qi Research Center as an editor. She has translated Western religious books into Chinese, including the eight-volume series “Catholicism” by Father Richard McBrien. She has to submit books to the government religious affairs bureau for approval; several books have not been published, sometimes because the government rejects them and at other times because the church refuses to accept the censuring.
But she affirmed that God has always provided. “Every day I bring myself before Jesus at Mass to pray for the strength to face the challenges each day will bring. And even when I sometimes feel overwhelmed, Jesus does not leave me alone but stands close to me in many different ways. These nine years have been very enjoyable for me, not only because this ministry enables me to share with others some of the blessings I have received, but also because the publications themselves are very useful for the church and for Catholics throughout China.”
Hong, the daughter of a communist father and Buddhist mother, said she developed an intellectual interest in Christianity while earning her doctorate in Western philosophy. The faith began to resolve questions raised by her study of existentialism about a meaningless world and the futility of human relationships. She was invited to join a Protestant Bible study and was baptized in 1997. But as she became a professor she became more detached from religion, viewing her classroom mission as teaching courses related to Christianity but not evangelizing.
Hong said that “Christianity fever” began in China in the late 1980s as the market economic system was developed and the country’s traditional moral framework began to fall apart, leaving a spiritual vacuum.
“At the same time, the Christian churches in China, having survived the decade-long Cultural Revolution, have very good testimony to the faith by their very survival,” Hong said.
Churches were expanding rapidly, she said, and Christian studies became fashionable on the publishing and academic circuit and on university campuses. Scholars who regarded the faith as a significant part of Western culture were called “cultural Christians.”
Yet she became more aware of the need for the Christian scholar to reflect on the life of the faith community, as “this wide division between the church and the academy has become a mark of Chinese Christianity today.”
By 2004, married and with a young son, on a holiday she and her husband visited a priest at a cathedral dedicated to Mary. She asked him about the significance of infant baptism and he asked her to consider having her new son baptized. They felt led to have their son baptized the next morning and experienced it as a “great blessing.” The next year they went to Yale University for her sabbatical, and she was confirmed in the campus chapel while her husband was baptized and confirmed.
“We experienced very deeply the truth in Scripture: ‘Have faith in the Lord Jesus, and you and your family will have salvation,’” Hong said.
She has been drawn to the methodology of some Catholic theologians and feminist thinkers who started their theological reflections from their own ecclesiastical and personal experience. She came to realize theology is not purely academic. “As a self-expression and commitment of the faith community, theology can and must challenge and criticize the ecclesial reality. Similarly, the ecclesial community will also modify and correct theology. … A true Christian neither totally identifies with nor completely rejects society; a true theology neither compromises with nor separates totally from its cultural context.”
She’s now completing research at the University of Notre Dame and when she returns to China hopes to push the boundaries of that division and also to secure funding and establish a center dedicated to research and teaching of Catholic thought and history. There are now many Christian centers in the academic network but few provide sustained consideration of Catholicism. Activities would involve publishing and translating Catholic works for academic believers and the faithful, holding seminars in dioceses and a graduate pastoral training program, and encouraging students and scholars to participate in church life.
“I want to take this scriptural verse as the burden I will bear for my future: ‘The one to whom much is given, will have to give much; if much is given into her care, of her more will be requested,’” she said.
Sister Avila, a Sister of the Sacred Heart, an order founded by Maryknoll in the 1930s, is preparing to return to China where she will work to inspire others to join religious life, just as her aunt did for her as a child. Her aunt lived with her family when churches were closed, and she would still go out and teach catechesis and minister daily. The diminutive sister said orders in China are attracting many candidates, but the challenge is to keep them. Sisters must be able to develop as a whole person, maintain strong family ties and healthy friendships. “Most of all we must help them to develop a deep relationship with Jesus and Mary through prayer, service and knowledge of the Bible and our place in the cosmos.”
She said that orders sponsor many social, medical and pastoral institutions, and her order has homes for seniors. As government control lessens, they can now receive foreign mail freely, and it’s easier to get permission to open a clinic, home or social service center.
She said many women have a low self-image as a result of their traditional subservient status, but they are now struggling with a “new consciousness of being on an equal plane with men.” She said the church is poor and the greatest need is for more training and formation in religious communities and for sisters to “reach out and support the training and spiritual development of laywomen to take their place in the church.” Ignatian spiritual exercises “are finding great devotion in almost all the convents in China,” she said. A two-year formation program was begun in 2002 in northwest China at the Shaanxi Major Seminary for sisters, most of whom have a high school education.
“Our aim is certainly to have our sisters grasp the essence of the Bible and be grounded in theology but also to be at home in the modern world and be capable of communicating and sharing with other sisters in community,” Sister Avila said. “They must remember that Jesus is true God and true man who enjoyed life and suffering, success and failure, had friends and enemies. … As someone once said: The glory of God is man and woman fully alive. That is our aim.”
Sister Francis Xia of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus is doing graduate study in religious education, pastoral ministry and social work at Boston College and formerly worked at the nonprofit Jinde Charities in the capital of the Hebei Province about 200 miles southwest of Beijing. This year it became the first Catholic nonprofit to register at the national level with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Out of 50 dioceses, there are two other diocesan social service centers, but “the majority of dioceses are emerging to do charity work,” she said.
While raised as a Catholic, she had little religious formation growing up and agreed that better education is critical. She also said there is a great need for more charitable outreach to address human trafficking, AIDS, and poverty. Her diocese works largely in disaster relief for the annual floods, educational scholarships and support for those with AIDS. The organization’s work since its establishment in 1998 has included funding the education of 6,551 schoolchildren and aiding victims of at least 35 disasters in the country. They have partnered with German Caritas and Catholic Relief Services in AIDS work and made their first overseas donation for tsunami relief. Her diocese held an interfaith conference focused on “how we can work together to help society,” Sister Francis said.
“I’m so excited, taking three classes in Boston College. They emphasize how to apply apostolic ministry,” she said. “It’s good for me to learn like at this conference and catechetical training programs. Every chance I have, I try to go and learn.”
The 44-year-old believes that sisters “play a very, very important role in the church” particularly because “for women and children it’s very easy to approach sisters” and the Chinese have a special devotion to Mary.
“Mothers and women play a very important role in Chinese families. There are a lot of Chinese traditional stories and models mothers use to educate their children and with Mary’s nature and virtue it’s easy to adapt to Chinese culture. … Chinese women like Mother Mary and especially to pray the rosary, which helps families become devoted to Mary.”