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A Place to Grow in Faith:

The Challenge of Developing Sustainable Faith Formation Programs in China

For many Catholics in China, there are few opportunities to grow in faith outside of Mass, prayer and the sacraments. Those Catholics who seek to develop their spiritual life usually only have the available options of daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration, praying the rosary, the divine office and similar prayerful devotions, faith sharing with a group of friends, or private study of the Bible and other works of faith. What is often missing is a regular opportunity for Chinese Catholics to grow in the knowledge of their faith in a structured setting after they have been baptized. This situation has hindered the growth of many Chinese Catholics who thirst for a deeper understanding of their faith but are unable to find it once they have been baptized into the Catholic Church. In recent years, however, this situation in China has been changing with the gradual rise of home-grown initiatives and program models adopted from overseas. Yet, challenges still remain.

As the Catholic Church sought to rebuild itself in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the emphasis, rightly so, was on providing regular Mass, prayer and the sacraments for Chinese Catholics. However, left behind were faith formation programs to assist Catholics in growing deeper in the understanding of their faith and how to more fully live out their faith in the challenges of their daily lives. While various versions of The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) programs[1] existed for those Chinese wishing to enter into the Christian faith, little was available for those Catholics who, having already been baptized, sought further knowledge of their faith in Jesus Christ and how it might apply to their lives. Occasionally, Chinese Catholics would gather on their own, to pray the rosary and share their faith with one another, but structured faith formation programs were few and far between.

Since the turn of the century, as the need for greater faith formation has become increasingly apparent, particularly for young adults, more formalized programs have begun to develop. These programs run the gamut from Sunday school programs for children, summer youth retreats, young adult fellowships, Bible studies, marriage encounters, prayer programs, and spiritual formation retreats for mature Catholics seeking to go deeper in their faith. In addition, there are a plethora of social justice programs that have always been a hallmark of the Catholic Church in society. Many of these programs are home-grown, often initiated by strong Chinese lay Catholics who, while supported by their parish priest, have been assertive in trying to address the needs they see existent within their respective faith communities.

However, establishing lasting programs with qualified leaders has proved difficult for many parishes. This is for a number of reasons beyond the more obvious political challenges. Traditionally, many Chinese Catholics do not feel qualified to lead faith formation programs. This, many Catholic laity believe, should be left to someone such as a priest who ideally has received extensive education and formation in the Catholic faith. Few opportunities currently exist within China for lay Catholics to receive the kind of education and faith formation that would give them the confidence to be willing to lead even a Bible study on their own. This sentiment, compounded with a cultural deference towards authority, has led to an over reliance on “qualified” clergy to lead the way. However, many Chinese priests are overworked or do not necessarily recognize the need for greater faith formation programs or what they can do about it. Thus, most early successful faith formation programs were begun by risk-taking, highly-motivated priests with a strong pastoral charism who managed to make the time and effort to initiate and build up programs to help meet the spiritual and formative needs of their parishioners.

More recently, there has been a general relaxing of this cultural thinking as the needs of the laity become more pressing. There is a greater sense of empowerment among the laity to take more ownership of their own faith formation and seek out those among them who are felt to be sufficiently qualified to lead certain faith sharing and social justice activities. Some programs, with the right people at the helm, tend to do fairly well. Others, however, unable to find the right leadership to educate and inspire, wither away.

Finding this leadership is not easy. Even those who may be knowledgeable enough in the faith to lead a Bible study or youth group may not have a good sense of how to structure an effective Bible study with enough content diversity to appeal to a broad spectrum of participants—from multigenerational Catholics to the newly baptized to the simply curious—and keep people interested and excited about their faith. Those Bible studies and youth groups that have done well without the regular active presence of a priest have been successful in finding someone with good leadership and administrative skills, as well as someone who is good at teaching; oftentimes, this is the same person. Once a solid group has been able to establish itself for a good length of time, the most successful groups have been able to train up others with a charism for teaching or leading to make the ministry more self-sustainable over the long run. Regions with strong Catholic populations such as Hebei and Shanxi have been able to develop fairly effective youth groups, Bible studies and prayer groups, in part because they have such a strong Catholic faith tradition, but also because they have a larger pool of dedicated and well-formed Catholics to draw from to find the right people for leading ministry activities.

Yet, there are still challenges for Catholic laity to break free from the old mold of approaching faith and understanding. For many young adults, it is about trying to understand how faith is relevant to, and integrates with, their young adult lives. Whether trying to understand what the Christian faith says about ethical work practices or how to have a positive marriage, China’s young adult Catholics are yearning to know more about their faith and life. Developing an effective young adult ministry takes time and dedication as there is a need for greater cooperation between clergy who can relate to the needs of young adults in a real way, and a young adult leadership willing to take initiative to provide regular programs and activities. Lack of effective models for developing young adult fellowships has hampered this progress as well.

Here again, the will of the Spirit has managed to overcome many of these obstacles so that in different parts of the country there are thriving young adult faith groups that engage in a variety of faith formation activities and service work. One such group, with the support and leadership of their parish priest, began a social justice program modeled after the spirit of Mother Teresa’s ministry. This program attracts over fifty young adult Catholics who go out each Sunday after Mass to perform basic chores and tasks for the sick and elderly in their local community—from cooking to doing laundry to general cleaning, not to mention the warmth of a smile and friendly conversation. Other parishes, in a variety of provinces, host weeklong faith retreats for young adults during the summer and major holidays. Shorter weekend retreats led by priests throughout the year are also becoming increasingly common in most dioceses.

As opportunities for greater international exchange have increased, many Chinese Catholics have participated in workshops and faith formation programs internationally which has enabled them to draw from the riches of the entire Catholic Church that they are largely cut off from on the mainland. Such Catholics, both clergy and laity alike, return home able to develop new faith formation programs and activities modeled after well-established programs that have been effective in strengthening faith communities overseas. Such programs range from marriage programs like Marriage Encounter and Couples for Christ (CFC) intensive weekend retreats based on the short course model, contemplative prayer utilizing Ignatian or Carmelite spirituality, and even fledgling Sunday school programs that are just now starting to take root in various dioceses. Furthermore, through international exposure to the greater spiritual tradition of the Catholic Church, including recent church documents from the ecumenical council at Vatican II and recent popes,[2] Catholic thought within China is beginning to open up and further mature in its understanding of church doctrine and the role of the laity in the mission of the church. This, in turn, is creating greater opportunities for Catholic laity to become better formed spiritually through new program initiatives and activities for spiritual formation within China. Thus, now more than ever, there is a home for those Chinese Catholics wishing to grow stronger in the understanding of their faith and how it relates to their lives.

Although the Catholic Church in China has struggled in the last few decades to develop effective faith formation programs, through great personal initiative of both clergy and laity, a broadening of the cultural mindset towards authority, gradual empowerment of the laity, and increased exposure to international program models and the teachings of the universal Catholic Church, faith formation programs in many forms have been taking hold in recent years. Furthermore, through new understanding gained from such programs, many laity have begun to realize their own gifts and abilities through the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, empowering them to live out their faith with greater confidence and ensure the continuity and growth of faith formation programs in their communities. Though the road ahead is still long for many faith communities that still lack the personnel and resources to develop strong and sustainable faith formation programs, the tide is changing as more and more parishes are able to develop and establish a diverse array of these programs for the greater glory of God and his church.

Photo Credit: Tricia Bølle



[1] The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) is a program of the Catholic Church oriented towards those who are searching and inquiring about the Catholic way of life. Its history goes back to the early Christian church that wanted to ensure that those who were baptized had a proper understanding and sincere belief of the Christian faith into which they were being baptized.

[2] Aside from the documents that came out of Vatican II, popular Church documents from recent popes that are just starting to influence Catholic thought within China include Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Mankind) Cristifidelis Laici (Christ’s Lay Faithful) and Theology of the Body from St. John Paul II, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) and Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) from Pope Francis.

Photo Credit: Tricia Bølle 

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Alexa Rose

Alexa Rose has considerable research background in Asian history, culture and society. She has lived in Asia for many years and spends much of her time engaging with Chinese Christian young adults, particularly within the Catholic faith community.View Full Bio