Young priests and religious a sign of hope for the church and the faith in China
When I visited China after Easter, I learned I was not the first archbishop of Omaha to do so. The October 1948 edition of The Far East, a magazine published by The Columban Fathers, describes the visit earlier that year of Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, along with a number of other bishops and priests, to China and other mission countries. Among the group was Archbishop Gerald Bergan, then recently installed in Omaha.
All along the way, Archbishop Bergan met with Columban Fathers and Sisters and witnessed their generous service for the Gospel. He is pictured in the magazine locking arms with Bishop Edward Galvin (one of the founders of the Columbans) of Hanyang, China. As Father Greisen and I made our journey recently, as guests of the Columban Fathers, I had the opportunity to reflect on the many changes – and especially the many sufferings – experienced by Chinese people in the places we visited, since Archbishop Bergan made his trip in 1948.
Just a year later, the Communist revolution was complete. Under the direction of the dictator Mao Zedong, Catholic churches, convents, seminaries and schools were closed, and the buildings and properties seized by the government. Many foreign priests and sisters were expelled from the country. Others were imprisoned for years. A number were killed. A period of great suffering and sadness began for Chinese Christians that lasted for more than a generation.
I cannot forget a visit with an elderly priest who is now in residence at a seminary in China. He was ordained in 1948 and almost immediately sent to a forced labor camp for 20 years. He then worked on a farm for another 10 years. In the 1980s, the government began to ease restrictions on religious practice. After all those years, the priest was able to begin again to exercise his ministry. It was very humbling to listen to his story and to receive his priestly blessing (in Latin).
During the past 30 years, Catholic communities have been able to gain possession again of some of their churches. After the revolution, church buildings had been used for secular purposes, such as factories or army barracks. During the ensuing Cultural Revolution, much of the sacred art was destroyed. So pastors and people have been restoring them as resources become available. In some larger cities, beautifully restored churches are visible on major streets.
Occasionally, you come across a small church that had survived the post-revolution period more or less intact. On the Solemnity of the Annunciation, we had the privilege of celebrating Mass in a small church in a rural village. It was plain on the outside, causing no notice, at the end of a small lane. Inside we found people praying before the Blessed Sacrament. They were happy to welcome visitors from far away to their parish church. The setting and the welcome reminded me of some of our small churches here in Nebraska.
There are even new churches being constructed in some places, as you can see in the photo below. You can imagine the pride of the parishioners as they see this visible sign of their Catholic community being built – a place where they can offer fitting worship to God and be nourished with the bread of life.
We were able to visit with a number of impressive younger priests who are pastoring these parish congregations. In fact, for the most part, there are very few middle-age and older priests. For several decades in the mid to late 20th century, the seminaries were closed in China, and there were few opportunities to form new priests. A few would have been formed and ordained in secret, unable to exercise their ministry publicly. A few others were able to leave the country to study elsewhere, supported by groups such as the Columbans or Maryknoll. For the most part, however, there are a couple of generations of priests that are simply not there.
As a result, men very young in the priesthood have responsibility for parishes. Others are serving as administrators of dioceses where there is currently no bishop. It is beautiful to see what the Holy Spirit is making possible as priests and people work together. At the same time, the lack of older priests to serve as mentors, spiritual directors and seminary faculty is a sign of the lingering poverty of the present church.
A bright spot of our trip was the opportunity to visit several communities of religious sisters. Here, too, you notice the absence of experienced members. Yet there is a great vitality and spirituality within the convent and in the works done by the sisters with great creativity, depending on local limitations. In a rural diocese, a group of sisters operates homes for developmentally and physically disabled young people, most of whom would have been abandoned as infants. The care and the teaching compare very favorably to what we would expect here. This was a particular manifestation of the mercy of God and of these sisters who choose to be instruments of mercy for these little ones.
Last time, I mentioned the Basilica of Our Lady of Sheshan in Shanghai. Our visit to this pilgrimage center was very memorable. One aspect of our time there stands out. The diocesan seminary is located near the basilica. We stopped in there just before heading home, and we could hear praying and chanting coming from the small chapel. As we went into the chapel and settled in the back, we realized that the seminarians were praying evening prayer. So we stayed to pray with them and remained as they prayed the rosary.
I have prayed often for these seminarians since returning home, especially as I prepare to ordain some of our seminarians to the diaconate and priesthood in a few days. The men there face a complicated future; their bishop is not allowed to minister in public. Still, they will serve a church that displays many signs of hope. They themselves are such signs.
Please join me in continued prayer for the church in China. Remember, May 24 has been designated as a special day of prayer for our brothers and sisters there.