China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2010/Jan

2009 a mixed end to a mixed decade

Ten years ago, the world waited in fascination for the last three digits of the calendar to reset from 999 to 000. The Y2K fear did not materialize; the world’s computers did not crash on 1 January 2000. Small groups of Christians who expected Jesus to return on that special day were disappointed.

Looking back, the media had trouble summarising the decade. People cannot even agree on what to name the years 2000 to 2009. The attacks of 11 September 2001 led to wider conflict in the Middle East. Positively, the global economy soared for a few years, only to crash in late 2008, with China leading the recovery in 2009.

Climate change and protecting the environment became big news, but the Copenhagen conference last December ended with minimal results. All major global issues from the start of the 21st Century continue unresolved into the second decade.

Even with a new pope in the Vatican and new leaders in Beijing, the decade saw no major changes in religion in China. Likewise, the news regarding the Church in China in 2009 was mixed.

Fewer bishops in China

Nine bishops went to their heavenly reward after long lives of service and sacrifice: Joseph Xu Andrew Tsien Chih-Ch’un (錢志纯), emeritus of Hualien, Taiwan (台灣花蓮), on February 17 at age 93; Damasus Zhang Hanmin (張韓民), of Jilin (吉林), on July 19 at age 92; Domingos Lam Ka-Tseung (林家駿), bishop emeritus of Macau (澳門), on July 27 at age 81; Bartholomew Yu Chengti (余成悌), unofficial, Hanzhong, Shaanxi (陝西), on September 14 at age 80; Nicholas Shi Jingxian (史景賢) recognised by the Chinese authorities and the Holy See, of Shangqiu, Henan (河南商丘), on September 14 at age 88; James Lin Xili (林錫黎), unofficial, Wenzhou, Zhejiang (浙江温州), on October 4 at age 90; Peter Chen Bolu (陳伯盧), retired unofficial, of Handan (河北邯鄲), on November 5 at age 97; Matthew Luo Duxi (羅篤熙), recognised by the Chinese authorities and the Holy See, of Leshan (Kiating), Sichuan (四川樂山), on December 4 at age 90, and Leo Yao (姚良) unofficial, of Xiwanzi, Hebei (河北西灣子), on December 30 at age 86. The average age of these bishops was 89.

China is running out of bishops over age 80. Younger bishops are almost all under 50-years-old. Starting in mid-decade, we might see a few years when no bishop passes away, except in an automobile crash.

No bishops were ordained in either 2008 or 2009. More dioceses are in the hands of a priest or an administrator, but at least there has been no new friction over the selection of bishops.

On November 26, it was decided to postpone the Eighth National Congress of Catholic Representatives until some unspecified date in 2010. The government expects all the bishops it recognizes to come, while the Vatican strongly discourages their attendance – another sensitive issue for this year.

Letters and commentaries

The official Vatican website,, added a Chinese section in March. Due to the limited number of translators, there is no way to upload all the older documents in Chinese. Yet new items will be translated into Chinese almost as fast as into French or English. People inside China continue to have difficulties accessing overseas websites.

On May 24, the Holy See issued a Compendium of the Letter to Chinese Catholics, in a question and answer format. This is an aid to those reading the letter of the Holy Father of June 2007. It rearranges the contents of the Papal Letter by topic, rather than making editorial comments.

Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, wrote an encouraging letter to all priests in China during the Year of the Priest, which was published on November 10. He held up the model of St. John Vianney, urged greater devotion to the Eucharist, attention to on-going formation, and witnessing to the faith by love and charitable works.

A number of clergy in China were able to read the letter, and they conveyed their positive reactions to the international Church. Two years after the papal letter, some tensions between official and unofficial communities in different dioceses have eased, and reconciliation has replaced confrontation here and there. The coming decade or two may not be long enough to complete the process.

Women religious

One source lists 5,451 sisters in vows in 106 congregations, not counting those in the unofficial Church. Most congregations are diocesan. While more sisters have been able to travel abroad briefly and even study for a year or more, it is still difficult to maintain ties to international congregations.

Sisters represent the Church in clinics, hospitals, homes for the elderly, kindergartens, orphanages and social service centers. About 80 of them work in 20 government facilities for those with Hansen’s disease (leprosy).

The Union of Superior Generals of Female Congregations of Hebei (河北) held their Fifth Plenary Meeting in December and 12 superiors prioritised formation, evangelization, giving testimony, spirituality and service. There is an urgent need for lectures on theology and vocational training. Since the union was founded in 1999, the quantity of information available to people has multiplied, so what was an adequate base of knowledge then is no longer enough.

60th anniversary

October 1 was the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Bishops John Tong of Hong Kong and Jose Lai of Macau were among the guests invited to Beijing. Some Catholic communities celebrated with songs and fireworks, while other were low-key, with just a Mass or some special prayers.

Mission Sunday also falls in October and several churches combined National Day with speeches and banners to encourage the faithful to spread the gospel.

In the tight security before National Day, Internet surveillance was increased, a number of underground priests were questioned, and their congregations videotaped. Protestant house churches are also familiar with such concern from Public Security, but they keep meeting.

Catholic laity

At the end of 2009, statistics from official church sources give the figure of almost six million Catholics, twice the number in 1949. Yet there are now five people in the mainland for every two then (1.345 billion vs. 542 million), so the marker share of Catholics has shrunk slightly. However, the number rises to 13 million, or one per cent of the population, by counting the Catholics from the unofficial community also.

Catholic numbers have reached a plateau. As young adults move to the cities, they face new options and temptations, and many drift away from church for at least a few years. Ministry to rural migrants presents a huge challenge to the Church, just as reforming the residence system (户口) to provide them with better educational and health services now taxes city governments. The widening urban/rural, rich/poor gap is bad for society and for the Church, and there is no short-term solution.

Quality also matters. The Beijing diocese held its first training course for 120 lay catechists in July. Catholic websites provide information to the growing number of Internet users and newly built pastoral centres such as the one in Tianjin (天津) will offer short courses for the laity as well as for priests and religious sisters. Printed matter and audio-visual resources are still limited, especially in the countryside.

Friction with the authorities

Many Protestant congregations meet in small groups of only 20 or 25 believers. Large groups attract attention, and renting a venue big enough for 500 people is difficult.

In one large city, when foreigners gather for worship, the police want someone to check passports at the entrance and to limit the group to 99.

It’s difficult to obtain a building permit and construction funds for a new church. A long bus trip across a metropolis discourages many believers from regular Sunday Mass. Roads are ever more congested with automobiles – one mixed blessing of increasing prosperity.

Unregistered clergy continue to risk questioning, fines, short-term house arrest, or longer confinement to their home village.

Step by step, with limited vision

At the end of the 1970s, China began economic reform and opening to the outside world. No one had a detailed road map for this. Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) compared the process to crossing a stream by feeling for stones. Left unsaid was how one misstep could twist an ankle or break a kneecap.

This new decade begins with economic uncertainty, plus lack of consensus on energy security and global warming. Nations will exchange harsh words and protective tariffs, but a major war is almost inconceivable.

It’s safe to predict that China and the Vatican will trade comments of frustration and disappointment, especially when the time finally comes to select and ordain a dozen new bishops, yet neither side will slam the door shut on the other.

On a cloudy night in 1833, John Henry Newman was on a ship. He saw a lighthouse, felt reassured, and composed a prayer: “Lead, kindly Light… The night is dark, and I am far from home… I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me.”

Oscar Romero (1917-1980) was the archbishop when civil war began in El Salvador. Shortly before his assassination, he looked at the larger picture, and saw “a future not our own… The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision… We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete… but it is… an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.”

What will this new decade bring? Progress or setbacks? God knows and we will have to wait and see. In the meantime, all of us who are have been watching the Church in China still have much work to do and many prayers to say.

MJS and ST