In 1948, there were nearly 5,000 Catholic sisters in China. Following the persecution of the Maoist era, it would not be until Deng Xiaoping began reopening China that Catholic congregations for women religious were able to openly grow again. Today there are well over 4,000 Chinese catholic women who live consecrated lives as religious sisters dedicated to serving Christ and his church in China and meeting the social needs of local people. However, many of these Chinese sisters face a host of struggles surrounding issues such as lack of proper formation, community, opportunity for growth, and other resources to provide for their educational, personal, and spiritual needs.
This article encompasses my interaction with Chinese sisters during two weeks. It is by no means representative of the Catholic Church in China in her entirety, but we can nevertheless still learn from this experience.
During my two weeks with these Chinese sisters, I led a workshop of psychosomatic integration during one week and an individual counseling retreat during the other. There were roughly forty sisters from various provinces between 28 and 50 years of age. They came from the Patriotic Church (the open church), the underground church, or somewhere in between. It was no less than a miracle that sisters from all these communities could gather in one room. Indeed, the church of God can always find a way to carry on, no matter how difficult its circumstances.
Circumstances of the Church
The sisters from the Patriotic Church were much better off economically than the others. It seemed they had their own savings and dressed like lay people. The other sisters all wore black tops with black pants and looked more like ascetics. These other sisters also strictly observed their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; therefore, their superiors have unquestionable authority and power. Perhaps due to the influence of Chinese cultural values, sometimes these superiors lose sight of the need for respect and tolerance of the sisters under their guidance. As a result, I met many suffering young sisters who were in many ways still searching for their true vocation. On the other hand, the sisters from the Patriotic Church had more relaxed rules. Their lifestyle resembles less of community life; rather, they live like single people living a consecrated life—not as much like religious.
Ministries of the Sisters and Community Life
Some sisters attending the retreat worked at parishes, others in clinics, orphanages, and nursing homes while others were in homes caring for handicapped children. There were also some who managed retreat centers. Regardless of the field of ministry, the majority of the sisters were exhausted from work. Excessive workload, compounded by the lack of support and communication among sisters, resulted in many that were hurt. All they could do was sit and pray in front of the Eucharist. However, because of their exhaustion, they were unable to get consolation from prayer and consequently lost touch with Christ; thus, they fell into despair. However, precisely because of this, every one of them seized this opportunity of growing in integration and being on retreat in the hope of satiating their thirst, deep within their heart, for union with Christ.
The Formation of the Sisters
China is a vast country with great differences between urban and rural regions. Many missionaries arrived in China to evangelize as early as the Ming and Qing Dynasties giving rise to many Catholic villages. However, after the Cultural Revolution, many Catholics were martyred while others went underground. This made evangelization and pastoral ministry very difficult. The poverty of China’s countryside does not allow local people to receive a good education. Overall, these sisters did not receive an adequate general education and their spiritual formation was also quite lacking. Because of the tumultuous, recent history of China, people carry heavy burdens and have wounds that need healing. The course described below, offered by the retreat center, is what many Chinese religious sisters need the most.
This formation course is primarily based on the Scriptures, psychosomatic integration, and consecrated life. These will be learned and internalized mainly through themed discussion, prayer, sharing, practice sessions as well as the full-time presence of the instructor. This course is aimed at nourishing and helping the students grow in their faith and spirituality. It will also help them discover a way to approach God and move towards a fulfilled life, unique to themselves, as their personality and psychological state are being shaped. As such, they will live out their identity as consecrated religious and follow Christ wholeheartedly as they attain mature rootedness and stability in faith, personality, psychology, and spirituality.
- Scripture: Women in salvific history, biblical spirituality
- Psychosomatic integration: Integration between psychological strength and the value of vocation; the integration between experience in the family and the strength of vocation
- Consecrated life: Vows, community life and mission, sexuality, intimate relationships, and chastity
- Individual counseling retreat: Between or after classes
As China opens up and has more and more contact with the outside world, many courses on counselling, healing, theology, philosophy, and spirituality have been introduced. Any learning opportunity is very much welcomed. Currently retreat centers are used frequently. However, because of the enormity of the population in China, current resources from outside are still insufficient to meet these needs.
The Struggles of the Sisters
The sisters I met with have difficulties dealing with superiors and cannot easily express their opinions. Even between sisters, they could not easily share their personal struggles. They are also worried about the lives of their own family members. There is a lack of sex education, and there is a high rate of sexual abuse in their backgrounds. Many sisters grew up in abusive families. Opportunities for on-going formation and further studies are inadequate. Finally, some sisters are unable to have any experiential relationship with God.
During my two weeks with these sisters, through a profound interaction with the love of Jesus Christ and due to the sisters’ strong motivation, they quickly opened up, absorbing their experiences during the retreat like sponges and thus growing rapidly. In their sharing, I realized that women are still bearing the burden in rural China. As a result, although they have a high endurance level, they often neglect taking care of the most basic needs of their bodies and emotions. The wounds caused by these factors give rise to a desperate need to take care of the body, mind, and soul. Therefore, I plan to carry out the work of formation and spirituality concurrently.
Thanks to the blood of the martyrs, the Catholic Church in China sprouts up everywhere and continues to grow and develop despite the current ambiguous situation. Undoubtedly, the Lord and his blessed mother see the plight and faithful devotion of these women religious who desire to serve God’s people so strongly, and Christ will carry them through the difficult struggles they face granting them joy and peace. May the Spirit of the Lord shine brightly through them!
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