Lead Article

Finding Faith and Purpose

The Search for Meaning for Young Adult Catholics in China

In the main cities of today’s China, young adults on the streets and at local universities can readily be seen focused on their iPhones or knock-off Xiaomi[i] as they connect with friends on WeChat and view the latest video torrents. Many return after a hard day’s work or study to crowded dorms or nondescript shared housing while a growing number of others, hailing from wealthier families, go home to posh pads decked out with the latest technology and fashionable décor. Yet, despite the apparent socioeconomic disparity among these young adults, one major commonality that crosses the wealth divide is the lack of a sense of purpose and meaning for their lives.

This search for purpose in one’s life draws many Chinese young adults into the Christian faith. A visit to an afternoon or evening Mass at an urban Catholic Church will find the pews filled with young adults devoted to their faith or, at least, to their search for greater meaning through the Christian God. Come too late and you may be left standing out in the evening cold, listening to the priest’s homily and the young adult choir from an outdoor speaker for those who did not manage to arrive the necessary half hour before Mass to grab a seat. While a large percentage of these young adult Catholics are 老教友 (“old church members”), coming from traditional Chinese Catholic families, many are recently baptized or are currently enrolled in RCIA[ii] adult catechism classes. They gather before the altar with the restless heart of Saint Augustine, seeking solace in the Eucharist and filled with the hope of Jesus Christ. Their warmth and devotion at church and other Christian fellowship activities is both welcoming and inspiring. Indeed, many Chinese Catholic young adults possess a hunger for a deeper understanding of the faith, especially as it applies to their lives, which rivals that of many young adult Catholics in Western society.

Yet, not unlike most Chinese young adults, these Chinese Catholics also struggle with finding satisfactory work, having healthy relationships, and feeling the pressure of meeting familial expectations—particularly those who are still unmarried. More importantly, they wrestle with understanding God’s special purpose for their lives. In counseling and faith-sharing groups, these concerns about finding one’s personal direction and understanding God’s will for their life are often heightened by the difficulty many have feeling God’s presence in their life and having faith in his providence. Many also find it difficult to live out their faith on a regular basis. There is often a disconnect between one’s faith life while at church, fellowship, or private prayer and the rest of one’s busy, emotionally complex, young adult life. The lack of life experience of most educated young adults only amplifies the sense of feeling lost at sea.

A principal aim then, among the growing numbers of Catholic young adult fellowships in China,[iii] is to help young Catholics realize their God-given potential and allow that to help them discover their special calling in Christ. One of the obstacles to their achieving this, is truly believing in a personal God who loves and cares for them and who created them for a special purpose: “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, to be our way of life.”[iv] Many Chinese Catholics, both new and old, fall into a mindset that looks upon God as only distant and powerful rather than also as close and compassionate. This kind of thinking does not allow much room for the grace and intimacy of a loving God who is also a friend, brother, teacher, and source of comfort and strength. They live in a “tiger-mom” society where emotional and psychological abuse is often the norm. “If you don’t get into “xxx” university eight years from now, I won’t love you,” or “Why am I cursed with such a stupid son?” is often communicated. The concept of a heavenly father who loves us and invites us to “come as you are” and join him at his wedding banquet is often a major paradigm shift that is difficult for many Chinese to make. So, one of the most critical messages to get across is that regardless of any past sins or failures, these young adults are indeed beloved and precious in God’s eyes.

Helping fellow Christians believe in themselves and enabling them to see themselves as an integral part of God’s beautiful creation and as part of the mission of Christ’s Church here on earth, can be very empowering. Yet, in many Christian faith communities, the roles and responsibilities of the lay faithful are often expressed in a rather limited way that does not give much acknowledgement to the beauty and awe in which the Holy Spirit is capable of working through God’s creation. This gives rise to the tendency among many Chinese Christians to feel limited by their own capacity in what they can do, rather than opening themselves up to the possibility of an omnipotent God—whose power and grace is not restricted by human limitations—being able to accomplish great works through them. The task, therefore, is in taking a cerebral concept of an all-powerful God and making it real in a way that changes how one experiences God and oneself, and then lives. When Christians are able to see not just themselves, but Christ, alive within them, working to create goodness – 美 善, (“a beautiful good”) – within society, they can more fully live a Christian life without fear and with greater trust in God and his purposes. While getting this message of faith across to Chinese Catholics continues to be a struggle due to deep-seated cultural anxiety and internal struggles with self-worth, increasing numbers of Chinese Catholics have embraced the fire of the Spirit to live boldly for Christ and strive toward sainthood as God intended.

Underlying all of this is a foundational need for a meaningful personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Our relationship with Christ is the wellspring of our life of faith. Unfortunately, this intimate relationship with our Lord, so fundamental to our faith, is not always readily found among the Christian faithful, resulting in a faith that may seem devoid of its spirit. This tends to be the biggest obstacle for so many Chinese Catholics who are simultaneously lost and found. Their faith is strong; yet, they continue to struggle with meaning and the ability to transcend the message and strictures of society in order to live more fully for Christ. Some Chinese Catholics are able to speak of hope and believe in the promise of Christ; however, this is often only in the abstract without truly understanding what it means for their lives, and how they ought to live as true sons and daughters of God. There is certainly a change among those who have found Christ, especially after they have been baptized, for the sacraments can be life-changing. Indeed, many Chinese Catholics will readily testify that their faith in Christ has given them life, hope and understanding. However, those who have not yet begun to live in relationship with Jesus Christ in a real sense, often find themselves caught up in a frustrated attempt to discern God’s will without the accompanying joy, wisdom, peace and strength. They are unable to reach their full potential in Christ. Thus, their path in life, though made clearer by the loving light of Christ, remains filled with uncertainty. The hope and peace that comes with a healthy, personal relationship with Jesus leaves many Chinese brothers and sisters who lack this relationship feeling discouraged.

However, this situation has been changing where Chinese Catholics are able to deepen their prayer life—faithful, quality time spent with God—and find good, spiritual direction, whether in a group fellowship or private setting. Whether through Lectio Divina,[v] Ignatian prayer,[vi] Eucharistic adoration, theological reflection or just solid fellowship, many are gaining a greater sense of purpose that correlates strongly with the strength of their relationship with Jesus Christ. For those who have had the opportunity to further engage in workshops or spiritual guidance to discern their spiritual gifts and calling, the sense of purpose and understanding of where one fits into God’s plan increases dramatically. In the end, however, it is one’s relationship with Christ that matters and gives a Chinese Christian the peace of mind to know that he or she is living within God’s purpose. In this, each one is able to finally find meaning, a purpose in life, and take up the mantle of the Christian calling to become holy as a beloved member of the mystical body of Christ.

Photo Credit: Tricia Bølle



[i] Xiaomi is one of China’s biggest electronics companies, privately owned, that designs, develops, and sells smart phones, mobile apps, and consumer electronics.

[ii] RCIA stands for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. It goes back to the adult catechesis of the early Christian Church for those wanting to be baptized to ensure a healthy foundational understanding of the Christian faith.

[iii] There are approximately 6,000 parishes serving an estimated 12 million Chinese Catholics spread across 97 dioceses in mainland China (中國天主教 指南, Guide to the Catholic Church in China by Fr. Jean Charbonnier, MEP; China Catholic Communication, Singapore, 新加坡中華公教聯絡社, 2013.). Based on the author’s  limited experience with only a handful of dioceses, about half the parishes have some kind of regular programming for youth and young adults, a growth up from less than 25% ten years ago.

[iv] Ephesians 2:10

[v] In Christianity, Lectio Divina (Latin for divine reading) is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and increase the knowledge of God’s Word. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the Living Word.

[vi] Ignatian prayer is imaginative, reflective, and personal. It encourages people to develop an intimate relationship with a God who loves them and desires the best for them.

Photo Credit: Tricia Bølle

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Tricia Bølle

Tricia Bølle

Tricia Bølle has been working with young adults in universities and local faith communities for since 2008. A graduate of Stanford University, she founded an educational nonprofit, DEI in Asia, to develop programs and training to promote personal growth, civic engagement, women’s issues, crisis intervention, and psychological well-being among Chinese university …View Full Bio