China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2005/Jul

More than ‘Half the sky’

The young woman seemed completely overwhelmed as she left the church after morning Mass in the Chinese village. While other women, some elderly, others fairly young, eagerly waited to shake her hand and welcome her with a ready smile and even to invite her for breakfast in the poor parish hall, she was nowhere to be seen.

In fact, she had taken refuge behind the church in the effort to hide the emotions that overwhelmed her and to wipe away the tears that welled up in her eyes. It was her first experience attending Mass in a Catholic village.

The faith of the peasants was actually tangible and this moment had touched her heart in a way she had never experienced before in her beautiful, clean and almost antiseptic city parish church in Europe.

Any foreigner attending the morning Mass could not help but sense the depth of faith of these poor peasants, who made their way at 5:00 a.m. each morning to pray together and to attend the Eucharistic liturgy.

More inured to this situation than my companion, I was mentally collecting data on the composition of the Catholic community. I could not help but notice that women constituted the majority of those present. In the western world, people often remark that Christianity has become a Church of and for women. Could this also be true of China?

Catholic villages in China

There are a number of Catholic villages in China, where all or most of the inhabitants are Catholic. They are predominantly found in Hebei and Sha’anxi provinces. Hebei is the home of at least one quarter or China’s Catholic population. Catholic villages are also scattered throughout Guizhou and Guangdong. In fact, most Catholics in China are to be found in the rural villages.

Women as believers

Missionaries realised early on that they would enjoy greater success in making converts if they concentrated on the peasants, who had more leisure during certain seasons of the year and who were more open to the Gospel than the people busy in the cities. They also soon discovered that it was much easier to convert the women than the men. Women, they said, were more eager to pursue spiritual things than men.

While in rural China, the women might not be as well educated as the men, the missioners felt that they were not encumbered, like the men, with the philosophical aspects of religion and, therefore, could more easily grasp the essence of the faith.

Missioners also thought that women, as devoted wives and mothers, would be able to exert influence on the family.

It is perhaps too obvious to mention that the majority of Catholics in China are women. Mao’s well-known dictum that “women hold up half the sky” is not quite accurate in this situation since, according to reliable surveys at least 70 percent of believers in China are women! In rural areas, this can be as high as 80 percent. Women are without doubt the backbone of the Church. The future of the Church in China is very much in their hands. Are the women in the China Church ready to assume that responsibility?

The Catholic Church has not yet had sufficient leisure to develop quality pastoral care to address the spiritual needs of the laity both in the country and in the cities. There is still much work to be done to help the people rid themselves of superstitions and absorb the teachings of Vatican II beyond the externals of the vernacular at Mass and to develop a spirituality that will serve the people in these rapidly changing times.

Women in service of the China Church

I think it is safe to say that the women in China’s Protestant Churches are much better prepared than their counterparts in the Catholic Church. The Protestant Churches can boast of having at least 400 ordained women pastors and some 8,000 church workers.

The Catholic Church, of course, has no female pastors. It does, however, have a formidable contingency of some 5,000 religious sisters, some of whom are being trained abroad, in various aspects of Church service: pastoral ministries, theology, spirituality, liturgy and social services. Many are now doctors running clinics all over China. Hundreds of elderly people and abandoned children are in the care of young sisters who have discovered this social aspect of their ministries. Lepers are finding care and hope through the loving service of sisters and now, a significant number have been trained – others are in training – to minister to HIV/AIDS patients.

But there is still much work to be done, especially in the cities, on the essentially religious ministries of Christianity. The “Christianity fever” of the 1980s, with the phenomenon of Culture Christians, never made a deep impact within the Catholic Church. The Church must find its way into the cities and among the young people on the university campuses. It must be able to use Ricci’s “way of friendship” to attract young people to the faith.

This is why it is so important for young sisters to be well-educated academically and well-trained in matters of faith in order to deal on a par with university students and scholars who are seeking answers in their search for the meaning of life.

Unfortunately, few are trained to be spiritual directors who can give retreats or workshops and few are liturgically-minded or ecumenically competent, or able to deal with their peers at the university level. And yet, it is my impression that there is great potential in the Church in China within the life and growth of feminine religious life. But does the laywoman in the China Church also have a role?

Laywomen in the China Church

Most of the Catholic women in China live in rural villages. Most are uneducated and cannot read a newspaper or even write their name. The Church cannot just be satisfied with the number of Catholics in the countryside. It must examine the quality of those people’s beliefs. They have retained their staunch, simple faith, which they constantly endeavour to pass on to the next generation. But perhaps in today’s world, more is needed.

Today, millions of young people are leaving the villages to make their way into the cities where they become better educated and acquainted with consumerism, a culture unknown in their villages. They quickly succumb to its effects and unconsciously embrace its values. The values honoured in the rural villages do not seem to have a place within the context of their new environment and often, religion loses its former cherished meaning.

However, since so many of the believers are laywomen, they must be given opportunities to develop theologically and to grow spiritually. Bishops and clergy must be alerted to the need to provide women with adequate pastoral formation so that they may, in turn, be valuable contributors to the growth of the Church in both the rural areas and in the cities.

Women, equality and liberty

The Church, like society, has often been slow to recognise the contribution women can make to the Church and to society. Women suffer from sex discrimination and oppression both in society and in the Church. Women in China, however, are much freer than women in many other societies. Article 48 of the first Constitution of the People’s Republic of China gave women equality – something that has never been done by the Congress of the United States of America!

Much of the credit for whatever freedom and equality women in China may enjoy today must be given to Mao Zedong. A couple quotes from his Little Red Book can give us a clue of his thinking and his goals for women.

Protect the interests of the youth, women and children … ensure freedom of marriage and equality as between men and women, and give young people and children a useful education … Women represent a great productive force in China and equality among the sexes is one of the goals of communism. The multiple burdens that women must shoulder are to be eased.

And again:

Men and women must receive equal pay for equal work in production. Genuine equality between the sexes can only be realised in the process of the socialist transformation of society as a whole.

In China, the situation of women in society is certainly better than it was in the past, but they still face limitations imposed on them by traditional Chinese Confucian culture. In the Church, blocked by traditions, women are generally absent from the decision-making process and from any of the leadership positions. There is no doubt, however, that with changing times and customs, the situation of women will continue to improve both in society and in the Church.

The female contribution to the Church.

Women have come a long way in China since the abandonment of baby girls and female infanticide seemed to go unnoticed by the government since her bound feet confined them to their residence and lack of education assured that they would remain illiterate. Long gone is the belief that “women without talents are virtuous.” Both the Church and society now realise that they need the contribution that only women can make.