China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2012/Sep

Keeping young people faithful in a faith desert

Walking is a test of perseverance and faith

A group of 56 people, representing a full range of ages, walked for 12 days in the middle of July from Chengdu to Chongqing, in the Sichuan area of southwestern China, covering a total distance of 360 kilometres.

This is the fifth summer pilgrim walk the group has undertaken.

Each day, they covered about 30 kilometres, making time for prayer, daily Mass and some recreational activities.

In the evenings, they had sharing sessions and prayed together, before sleeping in their own tents under the stars.

“Activities might change according to the situation,” Peter, an organiser of the pilgrimage, told China Bridge, a column contributed to the Sunday Examiner by the Holy Spirit Study Centre.

During the journey, the pilgrims not only tasted adversity, but also felt the protection of the Lord.

“This pilgrim walk can nurture participants’ endurance and enable them to have a closer encounter with God. This is a spiritual journey to counter the materialistic life and secularised culture, which is prevalent among people in China,” he said.

“This tough experience has challenged the group’s Catholic perseverance and fostered team spirit,” he went on.

The group included four priests, one sister, 15 seminarians and 36 laypeople, with all but a few on the young side.

Some of the organisers have studied in Europe and experienced pilgrimages that feature long walks. This practice is not as common in China and they want to introduce young Catholic people to the experience.

Peter explained that taking part in a pilgrim walk can help Catholics to grow in appreciation of their faith, which he described as an appropriate way of welcoming the Year of Faith.

The group chose the graveyard of Father Vincent Lebbe (Lei Mingyuan, 1877-1940), located in Sichuan province, as its destination. The people prayed for the Church in China in front of the tombstone of Father Lebbe, who was sent as a missionary to China in 1901. He lived in the country until his death in 1940.

Peter likened the pursuit of insights into the faith to the exodus story of the Israelites, saying that in recent years, the group has also been on pilgrim walks to Taiyuan, Shanxi province, as well as other sites of particular significance.

The pilgrimages have all gone smoothly, except for one incident in 2008, the year that Beijing hosted the Olympic Games, and security around the country was tightened.

In future, the group hopes to go to Shangchuan Island to walk on the same Chinese soil which the death of the Jesuit St. Francis Xavier made sacred.

Summer formation activities

Youth formation is a priority for many Church communities in China.

Similar activities and programmes for young people designed to nurture their faith have been held in China previously, including cycling pilgrimages during the summer vacation.

Other parishes or dioceses have organised activities and formation programmes for high school and university students.

In Henan, one highlighted young people’s awareness of community-building, deepening knowledge of the Church and faith, as well as praying the way of the cross and sharing faith and daily life experiences.

According to reports from Faith Press, Handan diocese (Hebei) held a way of cross in July as the culmination of a weeklong youth formation programme.

It focussed on the introduction to the bible, the catechism, life education and personality type peculiarities.

In Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, a camp for more than 70 young people included English, Chinese, art and social etiquette lessons, as well as learning more about the Church and the experience of prayer.

The young people were encouraged to be altar servers and organists at Mass. Eight were baptised and two received their first communion at the end of the camp.

In Xingtai, which is also in Hebei, a group of 32 young people attended a camp preparing them for the sacrament of confirmation. On July 15, together with 18 adults, they were confirmed by the administrator of the diocese.

However, there are places that do not have sufficient or adequately competent personnel to run activities for their youth.

Difficulties in youth ministry

Today, the Church in China is often described as being in its fifth stage of evangelisation.

The first began with the Nestorians (sixth to ninth centuries), followed by the Franciscans (12th to 13th centuries), Jesuits and various religious congregations from the 16th to 18th centuries and other missionary groups in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Since the open door policy of Deng Xiaoping between 1978 and 1979, a fifth era of evangelisation is being spoken of.

In China, faith formation among young Catholics, who will be the future torch bearers of the faith, is an urgent task.

The younger generation in this officially atheistic country now lacks character formation and spiritual development. Many of them tend to be self-centred, searching aimlessly for something in a materialistic and secularised environment.

Young people, aged around 20, were born in the early 1990s. They are likely to be an only-child, and more protected or even more spoiled than their parents.

People working in youth formation shared that this can be a good focus for faith formation.

In the past, Catholics were mostly baptised in rural villages, where religious activities are a regular feature of life.

Nowadays, young people have moved to cities or towns to study in high schools or universities, and more of them are looking for work or better-paying jobs. Only elderly people, children and the women remain in the villages.

Urbanisation has had a great impact on the structural make up of the population. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing estimated in 2010 that the urbanisation level would reach 48 per cent in that year and 65 per cent by 2050.

Rural-urban migration in China has created housing, education and employment problems, and Catholics are not spared.

Thus, youth formation and pastoral care has now become a greater concern.

This is not just a Catholic dilemma, Protestants in China also view religious formation as an important challenge in youth work, as reflected in the official Protestant monthly publication, Tian Feng, which discusses the pastoral needs of young people in its May 2011 issue.

Several accounts from Churches in Changsha (Hunan) and Beijing shared the difficulties of retaining their young believers, as well as some of the solutions to the challenge. In one Church in Beijing, 90 per cent of its members are migrants looking for work.

Many of them only come once or disappear if they lose their jobs. Thus, the membership of the community is unstable. Various pastors have cited ways of keeping their young believers faithful.

They have highlighted features such as their interest in new things and ability to learn new things quickly, but at the same time note that they lack patience and depth in their knowledge and faith.

Lack of trained personnel in youth ministry is one of the difficulties faced by Protestant Church leaders.

Similar problems are faced by priests and sisters involved in youth ministry in the Catholic Church. Some priests told China Bridge that many young people are facing a crisis in their faith.

They are exposed to a secularised environment and once they leave their villages they move away from the structured religious practice they grew up with. Few, or none, of their classmates or friends are Christian.

High school students often stay in school dormitories and are more pressured with university entrance examinations; while university students are faced with the lure of a materialistic lifestyle and the daunting task of looking for employment.

The priests say that just attending Sunday Mass is not enough to sustain their faith or meet the needs in their spiritual growth.

Young Catholics have left home for studies or for work. Sometimes, they are in a place with no or few nearby churches and it can be hard to find a Catholic friend. It is as if they have entered a faith desert.

One priest explained that coming to grips with the value of marriage and religious vocation needs substantial counselling and guidance.

Financial pressures force young Catholics to live in a dilemma, either they follow their Christian values or live as others do, yearning for the good life.

Formation activities for Catholic students in universities always attract some of their classmates, who may not have an intention of getting baptised, but do enjoy the friendship and face-to-face contact with priests and sisters.

“Internet and chat groups are important to keep a connection with young students,” people in youth ministry say, especially after their graduation, as they may move to other cities for employment.

Therefore, summer camps and similar activities are an important dynamic in keeping young Catholics together.

Many look forward to them as a chance to learn more about the Church and make friends with people of the same faith. Even more so, some hope to find their future spouses at these camps, as it is hard to find a boyfriend or girlfriend of the same belief.

Parish priests and youth ministers hope that there will be more dedicated and well-trained Church personnel available to work in the area of faith formation of young people.

“This is for the future of our Church,” they say.