Contemporary Development of the Church in China
from the Perspective of the Transition Period

John B. Zhang, China

 

Introduction

Let me begin my sharing with two incidents that took placed this year.

On 15th April 2002 the girls at a dance hall masqueraded as nuns while servicing their customers. After strong protests from the local Sisters, the dance hall concerned was forced to stop its nun-degrading practice. Beside apologizing to the Sisters in person, they took an advertisement in the local newspaper to make a public apology.

This year, two companies had taken the initiative to approach the Beifang Jinde to jointly build/renovate churches and hospices. In return they asked to be allowed to set up BridaI Service establishments as well super markets next to the churches. The companies noticed a large number of couples holding wedding ceremonies in churches. They hoped to reap profit from such ventures and to boost their image by contributing to charitable works through the church.

It is clear that whether it be the dance-hall using the Sisters' habits as advertisement or the investment companies cooperating with the Church in construction of church-based facilities, many people are aware of the changing attitude towards religion. At least it is a far cry from the alienating attitude between religion and politics in October 2001. It seems to point towards a new trend of the of how society view religion including the Church.

In the ambience of the age of information technology, globalization, secularization and the impact of China's market economy, Chinese society finds itself in a transition period. In this situation, the Church, as a component of the Chinese society, has to focus on its own development and the opportunities.

 

A  The Future of the Development of the Church in Chinese Society

I wish to discuss the prospect of development of the Church in China in the aftermath of a number of recent incidences. I will not, however, comment on sensitive issues. Negotiation between the Chinese authorities and the Vatican began around 1999. The Central government outlined a policy on religious activities. On January 6 2001, five bishops were consecrated. On 1st October of the same year, Rome canonized 120 Chinese saints. In November 2001 Pan Yue published an article which is favorable to religion entitled "Marxist View of Religion Needs to Be Updated". On 10-12 December 2001, a congress on "Religious Work in the Nation" was held in Beijing. President Jiang Ze Min declared in front of President George Bush, reporters and television viewers that he is very much interested in the question of religion and that he had read the "Bible" and "Koran" and other religious scriptures.

Without doubt, these incidents has deep impact on the Church. It brings about a new knowledge and assessment of the Church, even of Religion, by the government, society, the academicians as well as the Church herself. In actual fact, this is but a manifestation of the change in the Chinese society as a result of economic globalization. The various strata of society has a greater interest in religion and this knowledge is becoming more holistic. People are paying more attention to religion and its role and influence in society.

Pan Yue's "Marxist View of Religion Needs to Be Updated", has incited general interest from the academic circle and people from all walks of life. Religious circle welcome the proposal. There were as usual people who are for it and other who criticize it. The debate on the issue is most found on the Chinese internet sites. Though Pan Yue' s rank is equivalent to a deputy minister, there were neither official sanction nor repudiation. In other words there were tacit acceptance. One such example is the rumour that party grassroots officials of the Religious Department were encouraged to read Pan Yue's article. Later on 10th December 2001 as meeting was held in Beijing for those officials dealing with religious matters through the country. Although people overseas felt the emphasis was on the "increased control" on religion, President Jiang's affirmation of the religious existence as well as it function and influence in society gained approval from religious circle. He said such things as "religion is no longer the opium of the people", "the existence of religion is long term. Even if the party fades, religion is likely to continue its existence" and that "religion will continue to exert is full influence' .

The current understanding and studies of the academic and political circles regarding the influence of religion in society, relation between religion and political authorities, religion and science and the relation between religion and many other field is deepening. Scholars are more apt to be more frank and to get at the truth to the point of going beyond the established rules in the attempt to present a fair discussion of the issues. Other than worrying about the relation between the Chinese Government and the Vatican, the people of various circle in society has yet to get a deeper understanding of the Catholic Church. There is no lack of misunderstanding. However, the political and academic circle is still respectful of the Church.

In the matter of bilateral relation, what were once insisted on "independence", "Self appointment and self ordination" and "the authority of the Pope" have newer and more realistic understanding. There has been effort made in seeking the truth in the matters of publicity and the daily handling of religious matter by the relevant authorities. After the January 6 incident, the government has been more cautious in dealing with the issue of appointing and consecration of bishops, trying to avoid a mass scale handling of issues. Following the October 1st canonization issue, Rome is more careful dealing with Beijing, making extra to avoid confrontation and taking into account the actual situation of the situation of the Church in China and the social ambience.

Both Beijing and Rome no longer insist on the confrontational and uncompromising attitude which characterized bilateral relation in the previous 50 years. Society gradually come to realize the social function and long term influence of religion. This includes the change in China' s international image after the normalization of relation with the Vatican as well as its pivotal role in the resolution of the underground issue. On its part, the Vatican recognizes that it is only through normalization of relation can misunderstanding and conflict be avoided and thus the mission of the Church in China be more effectively carried out. For the Church in China, this is a blessing and excellent opportunity for development.

Presently the Church in China has some opportunities for development, though it has to face various obstacle. A case in point is that in order to pave the way for the normalization, the central government has directed the local governments to return numerous church properties. As the many local leaders have high regards for the Church and its arts, many j churches and its plazas such as those in Wangfujing in Beijing, Xujiahui in Shanghai, Jinan, Shenyang, Harbin, were able to be repaired or renovated or built with funds from the authorities. Now these churches and their plazas have become sites of attraction for the people. It has benefited both the Church and the people. However, at the grassroots level, the distrustful and skeptical attitude of the learned and workers continue to seriously impede Church development. People are still suspicious of the Church. One challenge is that they may respect the Church by they keep distance. Some leaders and teachers in primary school refuse to accept bursaries from the Church's Vocation and Formation Fund offered to poor students or make recommendation of poor students for fear of getting into trouble. When Beifang Jinde proposed to help some medical organizations organize training sessions, the organizations concerned refused to cooperate because Beifang Jinde is a Church organization. They wondered if the Church has ulterior motives and did not wish to be get into trouble. Hence the Church needs to exert continued effort, reflect and implement measures in dispelling society's misunderstanding and adverse image of the Church and come to embrace gospel values.

 

B. Seeking Development in the Midst of Adapting to Socialist Ideology

Historically, the Church and the government had a number of uncompromising periods of conflict. It peaked during the 1950's when anti-communist elements in Europe and America went on a defamation spree. Religious and political relation was at the height of confrontation. Today, 50 years later, the situation has changed. Both religious and political leaders are looking for the best course. Guided by the "Fundamental stage of socialism", Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin proposed active guide religion in adapting to socialist environment and promote positive moral values. For the Catholic faithful with the background of the church of the 50's and 60's this is a breath of fresh air. The main stream of the Catholic Church has long since freed themselves of the historical burden. They no longer rigorously uphold the anti-communist tenets, but choose to face squarely the reality. They make every effort to adapt themselves to the socialist ideology and take on a positive attitude of cooperation with the government.

In this way, we at the Faith Press waited for 3 years in the process of printing the "Catechism of the Catholic Church". On the one hand we could not print anything that contains anti-communist and anti-socialist statements. On the other hand we did not have to right to delete such statements from the book. What we could do in 1998 was to wait and pray. Although the new catechisms around the world were expected to be consistent with the Catechism of the Church, taking into account the extraordinary case exception was finally allowed for the Church in the mainland to have a national edition. The statement "the Church opposes the hegemony of communism and socialism" were deleted (CCC No.2254). We took a bold step to delete the statement and ended the 3 year stalemate in a win-win finale.

If the Church is an unwelcome religious establishment or even dangerous and an destabilizing factor in society, then the people will be deprived of the opportunity of knowing Jesus and be in contact with His Church. The development of the Catholic Church will similarly restricted. To move forward and develop, the Church has to face the reality bravely. Dialogue and communication as well as the effort to adapt herself to the traditional Chinese culture and society, which includes the political climate, is imperative.

Everyone from the east and the west of the serious strain between the official and underground Church over the past 20 years. So much so that the conflict spills overseas. Not only the overseas Chinese but some missionaries and sinologists have joined the bandwagon. The problem is thorny for both the Church and the government. The Church itself is the victim of the skirmishes and conflicts. Since the bilateral talks between China and the Vatican began, mutual criticism, blaming, accusations and attacks have gradually reduced. There is an unprecedented truce and peace. It is evident that they are all awaiting the normalization. The establishment of the bilateral relation is the key to the resolution of the conflict and the bringing about of stability to the Church.

For the Church in China, be it the official Church or the underground, there is great awareness of the change of times, its strong impact and its challenges. Secularization, hedonism and the worship of money are the real enemies both of the Church and society in general. The Church no longer consider the internal conflict as the main and important concern. The focus is shifted to the development of the local church, formation, building, the proclamation of the gospel, pastoral ministry and meeting the needs of the multitude in society. These are the priorities. In the socialist market economy the absence of faith and an emptiness in life is emerging. The sense of morality has declined. The outlook of life is becoming pessimistic. The Church needs to collaborate with society and the government in facing the reality and making positive responds, meeting the spiritual need of the people. This is the priority of the Church and is an opportunity for development.

Although the internal conflict and bickering decreases and reconciliation and unit y will be a reality by and by, the wounds and hurts will require a long period to heal. Many thorny issues await the concerted efforts of all to iron out.

China began to move from a self sufficiency economy to the socialist market economy from the 1980' s. The change is but 20 odd years. If this transition period, the entry into the WTO and the hosting of the Olympic Games is to be for both China and the world a driving force and an occasion for development, then this massive change will bring about for the Church an equal opportunity for development. Rather than sitting on the fence, arguing and even worrying about the China threat or opposing China' s development, it would be more profitable to lend a hand. Help China in her reform on the road to build a more stable, democratic, legalized, prosperous and healthy society. When we help promote China as an indispensable member of the international community, we are actually helping development of the Church in China.

 

C. Development of the Church and the Strive towards Maturity

20 years ago, in Catholic villages in China, one could often see the whole village, young and old, gathered in the open-air in front of the houses fervently celebrated the Mass in Latin. This sort of spectacle happened at the end of the 70's and the beginning of the 80's in the last century. There was no stopping it, be it snowy and cold or humid and hot. The phenomenon is the result of the renaissance of the faith after along period of deprivation of public manifestation of their faith. Today, after 20 years, from the villages to the cities, nearly 6000 churches were restored or built. Due to the rapid development of the cities, many villagers emigrated to the cities working in industries, trade, the processing plants and the services ; departments. As a result, the scene of thousands of people gathering in the open for the liturgy gradually faded. Many feel that situation has deteriorated and the faithful is not as fervent. I feel that this is the normal process. The Church not only have to embrace the challenge of social situation but also have to adapt to the changing times of social development. No matter how euphoric the "Summit experience" (the transfiguration), we need to follow Jesus in the descend from Mount Tabor to the nitty-gritty reality of daily life, marching firmly into the future. If the grandeur of the throng of people in the celebrating the liturgy in the open is the result of the revival of faith, I dare say with optimism that the current development of the church is not only normal but advancing towards maturity. Assailed by the diverse ideological trends, many clergy and laity were indeed waylaid. However, from my observation and widespread contacts, the faith of most Catholics is moving towards maturity. The development of the Church is healthy.

Over the past 20 years the Church has restored or build over 6000 churches. For sentimental reasons most churches are still western style. In more recent years, Chinese or combined Chinese and western style churches are beginning to be attempted. We are happy that the inculturation of churches in China has begun and is gradually enhanced. The clergy and faithful had not known and were deprived of the second Vatican Council of 40 years ago. 20 years ago, their longing was to be re-united with the universal Church and to be faithful to her. In a quiet manner, they undertook the first step of liturgical reform in using the vernacular for the liturgical celebration. Ten years ago, in accordance to the liturgical reform throughout the country, many elderly faithful lamented the turning around of the altars. However, both clergy and faithful accepted the new liturgy and actively study the documents of the Second Vatican Council. In the past 20 years, the three Catholic publishing house in Beijing, Shanghai and Shijiazhuang printed over 5 million books of all categories, the Bible, Missals, Liturgical Office, theology, scripture studies, liturgical books, church history, canon law, arts and literature, music, spirituality and lives of saints. The Audio- Visual Centre of Faith Press is cutting its own V CD, music cassettes. Web pages of various churches are sprouting like mushroom, making local and universal Church information available for the public. Among Chinese Catholic newspapers, "Faith Fortnightly" is the most widely circulated paper for Chinese Catholics.

Concomitant with the raising of the educational level of the faithful, many local churches have to entertain great number of university students every Christmas. A fixed number of intellectuals and professionals, students, farmers and workers received formation in the faith to follow Christ. In the last 10 years, local churches have been conducting summer and winter youth camps. Catechist formation courses is flourish in numerous parishes. "Faith News" has reports these from around the country. Thousands of faithful and lay leaders are receiving formation in catechism, theology and scriptures. They are the significant force in the pastoral care of the people. It shows that the Church is not only growing but moving towards maturity.

The rise of the laity has it background. As early as the 50's and 60's, under the unusual political and historical backdrop, a group of lay people acted as the "bridge" between the Church and the government. They shuttled between the Church and the government. They became the lay leaders later. These people still play an important role both the local Church and the Church in China.

At the same time, the emergence of a large group of lay people began in the recent 30 years in the 80's. Due to the aging of the majority of priest after the Cultural Revolution and younger priests have yet to be formed, the task of assisting these aged priests fell on the laity. Although they have not been formed in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, they came to the fore by force of circumstances. They formed the parish councils, built churches, prepared the liturgy and organized parish formation activities. What is consoling is the group which both underwent some formation and through try and error have become the basic local force in the proclamation of the gospel. A great many were baptized through their effort. A case in point is Ms Guo Caiyun. Priests, Brothers and Sisters are all attracted-by her sharing. Now she is in the front line, active in both the local parish and many dioceses, imparting catechism. Ms Tao Beiling of Shanghai returned from studying abroad and is the able assistant to the priest manager of GuangQi Press. Our publishing, social services and Church affairs are almost all done by lay faithful. Their performance is beyond praise. People usually remark about the abundance of vocation. However, what is a mere few thousand priest for the 1-3 billion Chinese population. The future of evangelization cannot do without and in fact is in dire need of the partnership of the laity.

While l share the good news with regard to the development of the Church in China, l need to emphasize the importance of the multi-lateral dialogue between the Church and society, other religions and the government. On August 24, our "Faith Cultural institute" and "Beifang Jinde" jointly organized with Buddhists, Taoists, Muslim, Protestants and Catholic religious organizations as well as scholars from many universities and environmentalists, a symposium on Religion and the Environmental Protection' .The provincial government of Hebei Province rendered its strong support. Such multi-party dialogue is the first in the country. Besides, it is significant that we met on the eve of the world conference. Naturally a stable environment with religious freedom is of paramount importance. l must admit discrepancies exist. I would like to emphasize that if China does not have the basic religious freedom, the Church would not have such good news for me to report today. In other words, we would not be able to build so many splendid churches, publish a fix amount of newspapers and magazines and books and I would not be able to stand here sharing my thoughts. From the perspective of the internet, it is impossible to control religious belief and ideology. Please, keep in mind that as longer as China keeps out to the outside world, it will not retrace its steps. China has already entered the WTO. It will continue to open up and to move forward. The Church has to seize the opportunity as China is going through rapid economic development and society is in the period of transition to focus on her development.

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