China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2010/Apr

Up and downs of the Year of the Priesthood

On 16 June 2009, Pope Benedict XVI signed his Letter for the Proclamation of the Year of the Priesthood. The Proclamation is largely a meditation on the life and whole-hearted ministry of St. John Vianney (1786-1859), the patron saint of priests, with a concluding reflection on the Blessed Mother, and on Christ who overcomes the tribulations of the world (cf. John 16:33).

When this special year began last June 19, no one foresaw that accusations of misconduct by priests in several European countries would be headline news nine months later. This dismal turn of events makes the plea of the Holy Father even more important: “Our faith in the Divine Master gives us the strength to look to the future with confidence. Dear priests, Christ is counting on you.”

The Proclamation contains no statistics. In many parts of the world, however, the numbers are sobering. Seminary enrollment is down and many priests are senior citizens. Some richer nations are importing religious personnel from poorer countries. Due to visa restrictions, that is not an option everywhere. China is one of many places where the focus on the priesthood merges with an effort to recruit more seminarians.

Getting people’s attention on vocations

Various local Churches have used different methods in recent months to publicise the importance of the ordained ministry. Here are three examples.

Bishop Peter Feng Xinmao (封新卯) knows rural Catholics in Hengshui in Hebei (河北衡水) are quite traditional. Some 70 families have sent at least one member to the seminary. Bishop Feng and his curia visited those homes before the Spring Festival to thank them. The link between the Year of the Tiger and vocations is not obvious, yet Bishop Feng stressed the need for vocations in his words for Lunar New Year and for Ash Wednesday.

The Republic of China promoted the secular term Spring Festival (春節) as far back as the 1930s. In the countryside two generations after 1949, people still pay attention to the moon calendar, and so does at least one bishop.

Many urban residents have computers with eye-catching screen savers, while farmers still decorate their interior walls with colourful calendars. So the diocese of Hengshui printed thousands of liturgical calendars with photos of recently ordained priests, and the caption, “Vocational Families, God bless you.”

A number of Catholics in Hebei were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and today, the area is still a source of many religious vocations. As the Church in Hengshui sees it, what Tertullian wrote in 197 AD, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians,” applies to vocations even today.

In the past 50 years, the Taiwanese have gone from bicycles to motorcycles to air-conditioned cars, with a resulting increase in obesity and diabetes. Bicycles are now becoming associated with fun exercise and good health.

On January 30, Bishop Thomas Chung An-zu (鐘安住) of Chiayi (嘉義) along with 320 priests, sisters and lay people peddled bicycles for 15 kilometres to visit sites connected with the history of the Catholic Church in their diocese.

The purpose of the bike tour was to promote faith and vocations, and some Protestant clergy were also invited to pedal along with the Catholics. Only one transitional deacon will be ordained a priest for Chiayi after Easter. All seven dioceses on that island are looking for more vocations.

In Hong Kong, the diocese has publicised priests who enjoy cooking and has shown a video about priest-chefs on the closed-circuit television screens on buses and minibuses. The aim is to let people know that priests have hobbies. Priests do not spend all their time in sombre prayer; they also enjoy many good things in life in moderation.

In advertising terms, these three dioceses understand their target audiences. Media savvy in itself is not enough; there is much more to the good news than the way the message is presented.

However, even 2,000 years ago, St. Paul was aware of the need to adapt his message to Jews and to Greeks (1 Cor 9:19-23). St. Paul lived in an age when new information was rare, so people listened eagerly to novel messages. Today, information is not just abundant, but overwhelming. What is in short supply is people’s attention.

Recent scandals in Europe

Lent 2010 in Europe was marked by media revelations of sexual abuse by clergy. Some reports are true, some are false, and God only knows about other cases. One scandal, like one murder, is one too many.

Although Easter has come, the bad news is not going to go away. There is a natural human tendency to move from Good Friday to Easter as quickly as possible, yet that is not always possible, or even good. Crimes and mortal sins are not to be quickly dismissed.

Pope Benedict’s Proclamation mentions the damage caused by abuse: “There are also, sad to say, situations which can never be sufficiently deplored where the Church herself suffers as a consequence of infidelity on the part of some of her ministers. Then it is the world which finds grounds for scandal and rejection. What is most helpful to the Church in such cases is not only a frank and complete acknowledgment of the weaknesses of her ministers, but also a joyful and renewed realisation of the greatness of God’s gift, embodied in the splendid example of generous pastors, religious afire with love for God and for souls, and insightful, patient spiritual guides.” This quote fits Easter as well as Good Friday.

The universal urge to silence

There is an English saying, “Don’t wash your dirty linen in public.” The Chinese equivalent is 家醜不可外揚, “Don’t talk about unpleasant family matters to outsiders.” The boundary between inside (内) and outside (外) is still extremely sharp in Chinese culture. Thus, anyone who divulges internal problems to a wider circle can easily be branded as disloyal (不忠) to the family, company, government bureau, or even to the entire nation.

In addition, sex is the last thing a Confucian culture wants to mention in public. Some western countries have gone to the other extreme, creating a different set of problems. For better and for worse, the Church is shaped by the surrounding culture.

Most Catholics everywhere in the world wish this problem would just go away. In the unlikely event that someone takes an opinion poll of Chinese Catholics, most respondents would probably check the boxes labeled “No opinion” or “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Religious formation

The religious training of children is important for them and for the future of the Church. Once teens enter the working world or university, they do not have free time for Sunday school or holiday bible camp. Such programmes let students know the parish priest and sisters better, and be exposed to good works which the Church is doing for the wider society. These positive experiences often draw people closer to God and plant the seed of a religious vocation.

Yet sometimes there is pressure to recruit candidates for religious life at an early age. In an earlier era, this made perfectly good sense. But the time when most people entered a life-long career and/or married by the age of 18 has past. The effectiveness of enrolling teenagers as seminarians is open to question.

In the developed world, minor seminaries are largely a thing of the past. The attrition rate was so high that the cost of running such schools for only a few students who would persevere until ordination was a poor use of scarce Church funds.

In a society where more and more people have university degrees, new priests with little or no experience in the workplace might find themselves at a disadvantage explaining the faith. Working in a factory certainly did not hurt the future Pope John Paul II. On the contrary, it helped him understand the human condition.

China still has a number of minor seminaries. Some of those schools will remain open for quite a few more years. Yet the quality of curriculum is often a concern. Fortunately many Chinese priests in recent years have gone on to further studies in spirituality and psychology.

Religious formation at any age presupposes a corresponding human maturity. As St. Thomas Aquinas said centuries ago, “Grace builds on nature.” Honesty, celibacy, responsibility and the proper use of power cannot be taught from books. All students need guidance and good example. With proper discernment, some will decide to leave the seminary, or be asked to live – at least for a year – in society. That should not be presented as a disgrace.

Hope but not complacency

During this year of the priesthood, a crisis has erupted. Some people ask with despair, and others ask with delight, “How can the Church survive?”

How indeed! Because holy people step forward. The biographies of several medieval saints contain the sentence; “He fought vigorously against the depraved habits of the monks of his day.” St. Francis of Assisi heard a voice commanding him, “Rebuild my ruined church.” Francis remembered an abandoned church nearby and began putting one stone on top of another. Later he realised the call was to reform the wider Church.

During the news of scandals in Boston, the United States of America, in 2002, one man shook his head thinking, “I can do better than that! On second thought, I’ve been away from home for several years now and living according to the gospel. Yes, I can be better than those bad priests.” So he entered a seminary.

Neither Church nor state can become complacent about misbehaviour among its personnel. The sentence, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” has been credited to different 19th century statespersons in the United States of America. Everywhere in the world, ignoring problems will not make them go away. Chairman Mao (毛主席) observed, “As a general rule, where the broom does not reach, the dust will not disappear.”