The 2018 Synod of Bishops on Youth and China's new restrictions on youth activities are prompting a review of youth pastoral work in China. The following reflections are based on my interviews with young people and youth ministers in China in 2017, and on the responses from China to the questionnaire for the 2018 Synod.
By youth ministry, I mean a youth pastoral programme which cares for the needs of young people on a long-term basis, with age-appropriate activities, accompaniment, teamwork, focusing on young people’s holistic growth and vocational discernment.
Proper youth ministry really began in China in the early 2000s to address two concerns: how to care for teenagers after catechism; and how to preserve young people's faith in cities away from traditional village support.
Around 2005, in Shijiazhuang and Xi'an, Catholic students began to gather on campuses and in some churches for prayer, Bible sharing, and fellowship. Many rural dioceses started to train students when they would come back during summer or winter vacations. Young people quickly got involved: besides university groups, they started to run parish or diocesan youth camps traditionally run by priests, religious sisters and seminarians. With youth caring for youth, these programmes became more adjusted to the needs of the young generation, and drew many young people.
The groups spread around the country, developing a network among youth leaders and youth ministers. Some diocesan youth centres or youth offices were established. The experience of joining international gatherings, like World Youth Day, helped young people in China to open to the diversity of the universal Church and to foster their Catholic identity.
Many young people born in the 1980s are now strong pillars of the local Church: they are involved in marriage and family ministry, charity work, Sunday schools. Some become community leaders. Some enter religious life or full-time pastoral work, mostly dedicating themselves to youth ministry.
With newer technology and social media, Church youth activities became less attractive in the early 2010s. Youth ministers had to consider new ways of ministering to the young people. On their journey of faith, five key elements can be identified.
Community life provides peers and satisfies the need of family bonds far away from home. In a society in which all relations are cultivated for a purpose, young people treasure these relations of selfless love, where everyone is equal, like brothers and sisters, without any hidden agenda.
This kind of Christian relationship brings young people deep joy. They will treasure this community as their own family. Activities like making dumplings, leadership training, prayer meetings and pilgrimages are important parts of community life.
There is a deep generational gap between young people and their parents. The older generations grew up in Catholic villages where faith was lived by reciting prayers and following the commandments. This is no longer attractive to younger generations.
At school, young Catholics are exposed to strong atheist propaganda and to the challenges of the sciences. As they move to an urban society that is becoming more and more complicated, with the explosion of information technology, young people need more Christian formation to be able to face all those challenges and to make faith meaningful in their lives.
Formal teachings from priests tend to be distant from young people's quest. Programmes run by mature youth are, on the other hand, more relevant to other young people; young people are usually good at finding the proper ways and vocabulary to address other young people's doubts.
Leadership training and personal growth support are important parts of youth programmes. Some in-depth special programs (usually three months) help young leaders to deeply reflect on their life, their relationships with their parents and friends, with God, their mission in society as Jesus’ disciples, and to integrate all those different aspects in their lives.
Deep spiritual experiences, like retreats, Charismatic praise and worship meetings, youth Masses and vocation camps are important occasions for helping young people build a personal relationship with God. One young lady shared:“before it was the faith of my parents, now it is my faith, my Jesus.”Music ministry and youth-friendly songs also have a strong impact. Through music, young people “feel God” and express their joy.
Young people also shared how much they grew through serving others. Most of the services that take place on a regular basis are parish-oriented: altar servers, lectors, choir singers, ushers, Sunday school teachers. Major activities like Christmas celebrations are usually taken over by young people.
They bring their dynamism and enthusiasm to the local community, which used to be composed of the elderly. Charity work has a deep impact on them, but it is usually on an ad hoc basis. Service to orphans or the elderly are the most common charity works for young people.
The most important issue raised by young people in their sharing is the need for accompaniment on both the personal and community level. Many youth leaders expressed how important it was to be accompanied when they faced difficulties in their service to the group and in their spiritual life. But in many cases they were not supported.
Accompaniment needs a lot of manpower, and openness to the culture and the needs of the young generation. It relies on priests, religious sisters, full-time youth pastoral workers, the whole youth community as a support group; even using social media.
In China, vocations to the priesthood and religious life for women have been declining drastically. In just 20 years, the number of seminarians has decreased by four-fifths. Does it mean that God is not calling anymore or that young people are not generous in answering God's call?
In the interviews, I heard many young people share about vocation. They feel the call to follow Jesus, to live with him, and to serve others. Examples of young people born in the 1980s serving the Church as lay full-timers, open new choices for the young generation.
Consecrated life and priesthood are not the only way to answer God's call. Welcoming and training these new types of vocations is very challenging.
How is the traditional way of training priests adjusting to the needs of well-educated and more mature young men, with strong faith and rich community life experiences?
How to care for all young people
Many Catholic youth settings focus on university students, but many do not go to university. How to care for all young people? In some large rural dioceses, some specific training programmes, called 100-day formation, are provided to young people as they prepare to enter the adult world, but they train, at most, 100 young people each year per diocese.
In some rural parishes, some young people have started to organise themselves to care for other young people. In big cities, like Tianjin and Beijing, some young priests and religious sisters from rural dioceses come to live in the suburbs of those cities to care for the young migrants from their own dioceses.
Still, a huge number of young people leave their village Catholic communities to live in urban areas without any religious support. The next time they will get in touch with the Church will be for their wedding and for baby baptism.
Importance of Church leaders' care and support
When responding to the questionnaire of the Preparatory Document for the 2018 Synod, young people from China expressed the following expectations: “Youth in mainland China hope that the Church will listen, be tolerant, be concerned and accompany young people, trying to understand, concretely, their conditions of faith. They hope that they can communicate with priests face-to-face. They hope that the Church can establish communities and organise activities for the youth, according to their age, stage of life, and goals or directions.”
As youth is a stage in life with specific challenges and needs, youth ministers need to be more specialised, with proper training and long term plans. Bishops, priests and religious superiors may find that youth ministry is very important for the Church, but practically when it comes to financial support, manpower and premises, many other items seem more important than youth ministry.
Implementation of new religious regulations
Reinforcement of Marxist education, the implementation of new religious regulations and the growing movement forbidding youth under the age of 18 from joining any religious activities pose new external challenges to youth ministry.
During the summer of 2018, some youth camps and catechism programmes were banned in different provinces. The Church may have to focus more on family faith training to raise the ability of parents to help the younger generations grow in faith with a personal encounter with God.
Being empowered by youth ministry and the encounter with Jesus, young people are full of dynamism and creativity to serve the Lord and others. They need to be trusted and encouraged, to have space to develop their own talents.
When we ask the young people what they can bring to the Church, their first answer is always: dynamism!
One young man elaborated: “When young people rise, they become the backbone. What they do, other groups cannot do. The elderly want to do things but they do not have the energy; the kids do not have the capacity to do it, many things rely on young people.”
Young people's participation in the Church starts with liturgical services, organising activities, but also suggesting new plans to care for families or for evangelisation. They care for the needy, and some engage full-time in social services.
In some rural dioceses, many new community leaders are former youth leaders. One of them insisted that the influence of the youth group brought them three important fruits: an experience, a sense of belonging, training for their future service in the Church and in society. With this young generation of Catholics, the Church in China is also moving towards the model of a Servant Church. BL
For more information on youth ministry in China, see the Holy Spirit Study Centre's Tripod magazine, no.190 (Autumn 2018).