Winter 2019 Vol. 39 - No. 195  Formation in the Catholic Church in China

Prospects for the “One-Generation Church” in Contemporary China

Anthony Lam

        I began visiting reviving communities of the Catholic Church in China from the early 1980s. There are many differences and similarities between the Church in the 1980s and the Church today which deserve further studies. Both can be classified as a“one-generation Church.”Usually a church community is composed of different age groups. But the“one-generation Church”relies on one generation as the mainstay. Other generations or tiers are absent or fail to provide support. There is, however, a noteworthy distinction between the “one-generation Church”of the two eras.

Two“one-generation Churches”with different causes

        As the Church reopened in the 1980s, all the bishops, priests and Sisters of the Catholic Church in China were born in the first half of the 20th Century. Basically, they grew up before the civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists. In December 1978 the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) declared the Open Door Policy. In the decade after as the Church started to recover, it was thanks to the hard work of the generation who were in their 60s and 70s. Occasionally some staunchly faithful leaders continued to soldier on well into their 80s. Very rarely were there leaders under the age of 60. It was what they called the“30-Year Gap.”When these leaders came to visit the Holy Spirit Seminary of Hong Kong, they were surprised to see that the rectors could be as young as in their 40s.

        As seminaries and Sisters convents re-opened, there came the joyful“headache”of a surge of vocations. When the candidates were asked why they would like to enter the seminary or convent, the typical answer was“recommendation by their aging pastors.”Nobody could explain why this young generation—raised during the unrelenting atheist epoch of the“Anti-Rightist Campaign”and the“Cultural Revolution”of the 1950s and 1960s—would so enthusiastically and irrevocably embrace a religious vocation. One can only surmise it was the power of the Holy Spirit.

        The formation of the new seminarians and Sisters started from scratch. Together with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the older generations were perplexed and did all they could to catch up. The infrastructure and hardware, such as seminary buildings, teaching materials and living facilities, were relatively easier to procure. Human resources and training was always more challenging. The introduction of overseas teachers enriched the variety of formation programmes. Just when differences in teaching philosophies and methods were being ironed out, a new generation of priests and Sisters emerged and began to serve. This was followed by a decade of a bumper harvest of vocations in the Church in China.

The current“one-generation Church”is reclining

        At the turn of the millennium, many diocesan leaders recognised the need to send their young priests and Sisters overseas for further studies. With the permission or tacit approval of the government, overseas studies became a new trend. Even though the language barrier was substantial, many did overcome great odds, completed their studies, and returned home to serve the Church.

        Just when the new returnees were ready to contribute their expertise, along came a big surprise. In 2003 or 2004, in response to queries from some overseas funding agencies regarding the trend of Chinas Catholic population, I noted that the Catholic Church in China had been entering a“plateau.”The traditional understanding of“the Plateau Phenomenon” is that a community, after rapid development, fails to maintain growth, such that any increase in new members simply replaces the number of lost members but without achieving any further growth. After reviewing different sets of data, I found that by 2000, the Catholic Church in China had entered a state of plateau. (Lam, 2017)[1]

        As the number of the Catholic faithful remained stagnant, the aging of the Church became unavoidable. But even before the Church grew old, the stagnation already affected priestly vocations. The gross figure of vocations was 2,470 in the prime year of 2002. By 2018 it dropped drastically to a little over 485. Seminaries closed one after another. Now except for two or three seminaries which can maintain a steady supply of newcomers, others are struggling for survival.

        The decrease in the number of seminarians surely will affect the number of new priests in the future. Currently the majority of Catholic priests in China are aged between 40 and 60. Priests over 60 years old are very rare. Those aged between 30 and 40 are still quite common but generally speaking decreasing. Those under 30 are even rarer. This should be a matter of concern to Catholics in China and overseas.

        The situation is more or less the same for the Sisters as for the priests. Recently I had a chance to talk with some superiors of Sisters congregations. They outlined the age-distribution of their Sisters as follows:

        Born in the 1960s: 20%;
        Born in the 1970s: 45%;
        Born in the 1980s: 30%;
        Born in the 1990s: 5%

        From the above figures we can see that it is rare to see a Sister born before 1960. 95 percent of the Sisters were born between the 1960s and the 1980s. Only 5 percent are younger than 30. Among Sisters congregations, it is also a“one-generation Church.”

The window of opportunity is closing

        Compared with the“one-generation Church”in the 1980s which was due to political pressure, the situation now is more worrying. The current“one-generation Church”is a result of under-preparation of the Church in face of the rapid changes of society and human ecology in China. The urbanisation of villages and townships; coastal prosperity and the attendant migration of workers are only part of the problem. Computers, the internet and smart phones bring about changes in social ecology which challenge the neighbourhood model of the Catholic Church in rural areas. The birthpangs of the Second Vatican Council are an equally important but less cited issue. For while the Council calls upon everybody to be responsible for the mission of the Church, the discrepancy between the Council1林瑞琪,2017,《21世紀中國教會 : 悲歡離合》,香港,聖神研究中心。The book is available only in Chinese.s ideals and real life experience could bring about more frustration than encouragement. Similarly, in an environment lacking spiritual formation, the liberal approaches promoted by the Council means that the laity and young clergy could lose a sense of direction. Eventually quite a number of priests leave the priesthood while the number of the faithful shrinks slowly. Compared with our brothers and sisters in Protestant Churches in China, we need to learn more from them.

        Regarding the decline of the Catholic population, I would like to point out some areas which deserve our attention.

The fade out of the rural Church

        In the 1980s, the rural population accounted for 80 percent of the total population. It slowly dropped to a little over 30 percent in 2019. Even more important is the disappearance of the whole generation of youth from 20 to 40 years old. The children of this generation, whether they are being brought up in the city or sent back to their home town, do not receive enough religious formation. In the past, the Catholic Church in China depended on the rural Church to supply human resources, while the bigger cities provide formation institutes. The Church valued grassroots formation at the village-level. Nowadays, even without citing the political ban against youngsters entering religious venues since 2017, the reality is that villages can no longer provide the critical human resource and the basic transmission of faith within the Church.

        In order to cope with the disintegration of rural villages, we should promote the“small community model”which cultivates mutual support. Take for example, Catholic publishing in China was booming during the last three decades. Many books on biblical studies, theology, spirituality, youth ministry, Church history and even pilgrimage guide books were published. Unless I am mistaken, few books on the development of“Small Faith Communities”have been produced. Promotion of this model for people who stay in the villages now becomes an urgent need.

Helping the city church become a metropolitan Church

        Compared with the Catholic Church in Macau, Taiwan, Singapore or Hong Kong where Chinese make up a significant proportion of Catholic population, the Church in mainland China seems less metropolitan. Many people have the misunderstanding that the process of urbanisation is a natural development. They think that building a church in the city would make it an urban church; actually it is a dynamic process that requires learning, training, application, reflection and communal participation.

        A metropolitan Church, which is based on vision rather than location, should have a well-developed structure. It should have a highly accountable council and commissions. There should be appropriate delegation of authority to the laity in terms of participation and consultation. In early 2019 when a real estate dispute erupted in the Nanning Diocese in Guangxi, it was essentially a failure of instituting a check and balance mechanism according to the Canon Law. (cf. Anthony Lam: “The Guangxi Case, a View from Canon Law”, in Tripod issue 193, Summer Issue, 2019, p.100-104.)

        On the diocesan and parish level, councils and commissions should be highly accountable. They can embrace different kinds of opinion but at the same time follow the instructions in Canon Law. They should work according to the teaching of St. Augustine, “in necessary things unity; in uncertain things liberty; in all things charity.”

Formation for the lay apostolate

        The slow development of the metropolitan Church is also deeply related to the lack of laity formation. In more than one hundred dioceses in mainland China, there are only a handful of laity formation institutes, not to mention a sustainable formation program. Even if some exist, most of the programs are run by the clergy, and seldom are the laity involved. In the Church in China there is not a culture of faith instruction or learning from one another. More disturbing is a blind faith in authority, especially when it is armed with a doctoral degree. That can be a great obstacle to mutual learning.

        Lay formation does not aim at replacing the work of clerics. Both parties have their own role and there should be a clear distinction. A well trained and deeply formed lay Catholic, however, is a very good complement to clergy and consecrated religious. The laity is on the front line of the life of the Church with regard to society. If a lay person can give witness to faith in daily life, it will give a great means of evangelisation. In return, the laity can also bring social issues back to the Church, so that the Church can be more pragmatic in serving the community. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuosotate) states:

The parish offers an outstanding example of the apostolate on the community level, inasmuch as it brings together the many human differences found within its boundaries and draws them into the universality of the Church. The lay faithful should accustom themselves to working in the parish in close union with their priests, bringing to the Church community their own and the world's problems as well as questions concerning human salvation, all of which need to be examined together and solved through general discussion. As far as possible the lay faithful ought to collaborate in every apostolic and missionary undertaking sponsored by their own ecclesial family (10).

        In 1988 Saint John Paul II spoke thus to all Catholics in the apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici: “In the present circumstances the lay faithful have the ability to do very much and, therefore, ought to do very much towards the growth of an authentic ecclesial communion in their parishes in order to reawaken missionary zeal towards nonbelievers and believers themselves who have abandoned the faith or grown lax in the Christian life.” (27)

        In 2011 the Catechetical Centre of the Hong Kong Diocese asked me to conduct a series of workshops for the “Year of Laity.” I borrowed an important concept from the renowned German scholar on Communication Studies, Professor Noelle-Neumann, to elaborate on the role of the laity in the Catholic Church. According to her “Spiral of Silence” theory, public opinion is our social skin. Similarly, I pointed out that parishes and parishioners are the skin of the Church. It is our responsibility as a lay Catholic to sense the change in the outside world. We are the direct sensor, sensing the weather outside the Church. Based on the doctrine of the Body of Christ, all members of the Church are part of the body of Our Lord. Parishes, Catholic families, and every lay person are the skin cells of the Church.

Seminaries in China should seek to join Pontifical Universities

        After thirty years of internal development as well as in response to the State educational reforms, seminaries in China are on a path to becoming degree-granting academic institutions. On 14 June, 2017 the Central Government promulgated the “Regulations on Religious Affairs (2017 Revision).” Article 16 of Chapter Three states:

        “Religious schools are to carry out designated systems for verification of teachers' qualifications, review of titles, and conferring of degrees; with specific measures separately formulated by the department of religious affairs under the State Council.”

        However, I would like to underscore that the Religious Affairs Bureaus under the State Council are themselves atheist organisations. How can they understand the special need in terms of Scriptures and Theology, i.e., the spiritual development that religious institutes are charged with providing for religious communities. The process of conferring academic degrees (a matter of integration with universities in China) by Catholic seminaries, similar to the situation with other religious academic bodies, will cause a lot of problems and challenges to the Church as well as to the government education department. To solve the problems, I earnestly recommend seminary leadership in China to submit an application to the central government to allow their seminaries to merge with Pontifical Theological and Philosophical institutes around the world. Before 2018, perhaps most people will find such a request ludicrous. But after the signing of the provisional agreement between the Vatican and the China Government on 22 September, 2018, the prospect of entering into an academic arrangement between Chinese seminaries and Pontifical Universities becomes much more feasible. The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissinmum Educatinis) reads:

The Church expects much from the zealous endeavors of the faculties of the sacred sciences. For to them she entrusts the very serious responsibility of preparing her own students not only for the priestly ministry, but especially for teaching in the seats of higher ecclesiastical studies or for promoting learning on their own or for undertaking the work of a more rigorous intellectual apostolate. (11)

        If the seminaries in China can merge with the Pontifical academies, it is not only very beneficial to the Catholic Church in China, but it will also help Chinese educational bodies to extend their contact and exchange with international academies. The Declaration continues:

Cooperation is the order of the day. It increases more and more to supply the demand on a diocesan, national and international level. Since it is altogether necessary in scholastic matters, every means should be employed to foster suitable cooperation between Catholic schools, and between these and other schools that collaboration should be developed which the good of all mankind requires. From greater coordination and cooperative endeavor greater fruits will be derived particularly in the area of academic institutions. Therefore in every university let the various faculties work mutually to this end, insofar as their goal will permit. In addition, let the universities also endeavor to work together by promoting international gatherings, by sharing scientific inquiries with one another, by communicating their discoveries to one another, by having exchange of professors for a time and by promoting all else that is conducive to greater assistance. (12)

        If the Chinese government could allow the mainland Catholic seminaries to join the great network of Pontifical institutes, it will bring substantial advantages to the higher education of both the Church and the State.


        The Catholic Church in China is now at a junction. It faces crises and hope together. In terms of the Catholic population, the Church in China is a young Church with an average age of priests in their 40s. On the other hand, she is also a rapidly aging Church. She is the third largest Catholic Community in Asia, yet surrounded by the largest atheistic society in the world. She finds herself lacking resources, but has been the focus of worldwide missionary institutes who are keen on cooperation to extend the development of the Catholic Church worldwide.

        Finally, the vitality and life of the Church do not depend on the size of population or material wealth. Instead it is a matter of ones determination to faithfully carry out the mission of evangelisation, to bravely respond to Our Lords mandate before His ascension. I wish to conclude my article with a quote from Pope Francis. He said in the apostolic exhortation THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL (Evangelii Gaudium) in 2013:

(1) Public juridical persons are aggregates of persons or of things which are constituted by the law itself or by a special decree of competent ecclesiastical authority (such as the Apostolic See, a diocesan bishop) so that within the purposes set out for them, they fulfill in the name of the Church, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, the proper function entrusted to them in view of the public good. (Some examples could be a diocese, a parish, a Catholic school, a religious order or a house of a religious institute.)

2. Private juridical persons are organised by lay Catholics on their own initiative, for the sake of promoting evangelisation, works of charity, and other apostolic ministries. They are constituted by a special decree of competent authority by the Church. They work in the name of the laity.

        In our day Jesus command to“go and make disciples”echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Churchs mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary“going forth”. Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the“peripheries”in need of the light of the Gospel. (20)

Endnote :

  1. 林瑞琪,2017,《21世紀中國教會 : 悲歡離合》,香港,聖神研究中心。The book is available only in Chinese.

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