Fewer altar boys: Another concern for China’s Catholics

Ban on under-18s impacts priestly vocation as Beijing tightens its control over Church reporter, Hong Kong 
September 26, 2019

Altar boys serve at a Mass in Beijing in 2016 ( photo)

Fewer young altar servers have participated at the Eucharistic celebration in some parishes since the Chinese government banned anyone under 18 from entering churches.

Although the decline in young altar servers has not seriously affected the liturgy of the Mass, some Catholics worry that it will impact recruitment to the priestly vocation.  

The age restriction was launched nationally in 2018 and although it has not yet been strictly imposed in some areas the story is very different in others, such as the provinces of Henan, Shanxi and Liaoning.

A source in Liaoning Diocese, an open church community, told that the local authority had this month banned anyone under 18 from entering the church in his parish.

The pastor has always trained youngsters to be altar servers at Mass most Sundays. “But we have now been told of this age restriction, so no more altar servers at the Mass,” the source said.

He admitted that many priests and bishops had enjoyed good relations with Communist Party officials, who had turned a blind eye to what happened in church.

“But since the inspector’s team came, everything has become very strict,” said the source, who hoped the situation might return to normalcy after the inspectors have left the parish.   

The source said that in a short run, the effect on the parish would be minimal, since services do not usually have altar servers present, but he worried it might affect the priestly vocation.

“The seminary in Liaoning Diocese has been struggling to enroll young men. No one is coming in,” he said.  

According to reports by the Holy Spirit Study Center, there had been a significant drop of the number of seminaries and seminarians across the country.

In 2014, there were ten seminaries and 560 seminarians from the open church community, with 12 seminaries and 300 seminarians from the underground community.

However, four years later, there were only eight seminaries and 385 seminarians in the open church community, with six seminaries and 100 seminarians in the underground community.

An underground priest from northeastern China, who identified himself as Father Peter, noted that although acting as altar servers was not limited to young men “this position really cultivates the priestly vocation for boys.”

“First of all, when the parents bring their children to worship God, the children are always attracted by the priest, who wears a beautiful vestment and says Mass in front of the altar, “he said.

“If the kid sees that another young boy of a similar age to him can be close with the priest and serving him, the kid may long for the same thing. It is a good chance to cultivate the vocation,” Father Peter continued.

Another Catholic in Liaoning, who identify himself as Joseph, added that the one-child policy of the past had already harmed the priestly vocation and it now stood to be impaired by the age restriction too.

“The government is tightening [its control over] the Church bit by bit,” he said, “and the restriction is totally pointed at the roots of church communities.”

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