The Youthful Vitality of the Chinese Church

The 2018 Synod of Bishops is dealing with “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment”. For the first time two Chinese bishops are present. In the delicate situation of the Church in China, understanding the young generation is especially important for its future.

Many foreigners going to China are impressed by the youthful vitality of the Chinese Church. The reasons for the high participation of youth in the Chinese Catholic Church are mainly connected to family life, especially in rural areas where the Church has mostly developed. Rural communities are still close-knit and less affected by social changes. For many generations the Catholic faith has been transmitted by parents to children (who, in the countryside, were quite numerous) in the home. Most important were morning and evening prayers, Sunday Eucharist and other Sacraments when available and some catechism after the Eucharist.

The advent of Communism in China has not interrupted this family-based transmission of faith. Remarkably, the active atheist propaganda in the educational system has not uprooted the basic belief in God of the youth coming from Catholic families where there is a strong sense of belonging to the Church. The impact of urbanisation: This situation, however, began to change drastically a few years ago, when the economic growth and urbanization began to affect every aspect of life, even in the countryside.

Young people who want to pursue higher education have to attend boarding schools or universities in cities, oftentimes far away from their hometowns, and therefore disconnected from their faith-communities. In the same way young workers, either educated or blue collars, migrate to the big cities where there are better opportunities for employment. The feeling of being alone in the new work places, coupled with the job demands, make the young Catholic migrant workers less apt to be involved in the Church then when they were in their hometown They find the city environment and life-style are not as conducive to daily prayer and Christian practices which were very natural to them at home.

Young students are also challenged in their faith. The educational system in China is openly against religion and imbued in scientism and socialism. As a result, one’s Christian faith has to be kept in the private sphere. The Education Department recently banned any form of celebration of Christmas in all schools, one of the few activities with a religious overtone that was quite popular among the younger generation. To make the matter worse, the religious education of young Catholics has been mostly devotional and has not provided them with cognitive tools useful when facing the challenges posed by a materialistic culture dominated by science. They have faith, but they do not have the ability to give the reasons behind their beliefs, so that they appear to be “irrational”.

Many youth ministers are openly worried about the future consequences of these trends, some of which are already felt as many young Christians have become more materialistic; the number of vocations to consecrated life is decreasing, moral standards are lowering, and the quality of family life is deteriorating.

External challenges: In spite of so many problems, the future is not bleak. There were nearly 50,000 newly baptized Catholics in 2017, many of them young people. Those numbers are increasing year after year in spite of the lowering birth rate caused by the one-child policy which was in place until three years ago.

In the past few years the local Churches have made a great effort to minister to the youth, establishing different programs of faith formation e.g. Sunday school programs for children, youth camps during summer and winter school holidays, youth groups for both students and young workers, marriage encounter activities, spiritual formation courses, and social service activities for youth. Many priests regularly go to visit the young people in the cities where they work or study, trying to keep them connected to the Church. In spite of the opposition of the Government, more and more Chinese young people are joining international youth gatherings.

The Government does not support any of these efforts of the Church to provide religious and moral education to young people. Instead, they have increased their control on the organization of the activities. In the past months, some local government have even put a ban on minors attending any religious activities, thereby excluding all under 18 from attending liturgical celebrations or formation activities. We still do not know to what extent this policy will be implemented; however, the mere existence of those regulations is worrisome.

A better educational model: In the complex situation of Chinese society, external challenges will always be present, and they should not surprise anyone. According to many pastoral agents involved in youth ministry, the focus should be on the quality of the Church’s educational proposals. Oftentimes, the Church is too concerned with whether the youth understand a set of doctrines rather than how to live the Gospel message in their daily lives.

Unfortunately, many young people in the church are not willing to openly express their true thoughts and doubts, because of the atmosphere in the church that demands absolute obedience. If educators are unwilling to face those doubts in a more open way, many young people, while externally adhering to the Church (mostly to please their families), will instead adopt a different set of values when making concrete life-choices. That is why a more personalized and interactive formation has to balance a knowledge-based catechesis. New models for youth groups are needed, whereby leaders develop the ability to get closer to young people and to dialogue with them with empathic care (and not only through a moralistic and judgmental attitude).

There are no easy answers to these complex issues. We pray and hope that the fruits of the Synod 2018 may also help the Chinese Church to better understand how to take care of one of its most valuable assets: its youth.