Last month I had the privilege of attending the US China Catholic Bureau Conference (USCCB) at St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens, NY. There were a hundred or so in attendance, including priests and nuns from China, all gathered to learn about the experience of the Chinese church in the 20th century. Writing in the May edition of the Bureau’s newsletter, China Church Quarterly, Executive Director Fr. Rob Carbonneau said about the conference:
Via networking, dialogue and celebration a greater understanding of the China church has come to life. This has been an exciting personal journey for me. Throughout the years, every national conference program has presented me with the chance to both probe the past and appreciate the contemporary pulse of Chinese Catholicism.
For those unfamiliar with USCCB, their mission is to provide resources and information to those who have a serious and professional interest in the Catholic church in China, the religious situation in China, and the general situation in China.
They graciously invited me to give a Protestant perspective on the experience of the church in China in the 20th century. I shared some of the challenges facing Protestant congregations in China, as well as stories and insights from my book, The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China. After my talk a sister from Shanxi Province gave me a handwritten note with names and phone numbers. “The next time you go to China, call this priest in Shanxi and he will take you to see more bells.”
There were two others who spoke on the Protestant experience as well. Dr. Christie Chui-Shan Chow, a Professor at City Seminary of New York, gave a talk on “Understanding Contemporary Women of Faith,” based on her experience and research among Adventist congregations in southern China. Her husband, Dr. Joseph Lee, Professor of History at Pace University in New York used his research on historical missionary photos to highlight the theme of “Building Bridges of Understanding via Study of Christianity in China.”
The other presentations were given by a wide variety of individuals involved in Catholic service in China. I attended as many presentations as I could and took lots of notes. I thought the best way to give a flavor of the conference would be to share some of those notes.
The opening keynote speech was given by Archbishop Eugene Nugent, formerly the director of the Holy See Study Mission in Hong Kong and currently the Apostolic Nuncio to Haiti. In reflecting on the experience of the church in China, he urged us to “look back with gratitude; live in the present with enthusiasm, and look forward to the future with confidence.” (This Protestant wanted to shout “Amen!”)
One highlight was reciting The Lord’s Prayer in Chinese during the morning prayer time. I noticed that some of the wording was different than what I have memorized from my time attending churches in China. I made a note to myself to do a little research on that.
A Columban Father who works with young seminarians in China expressed their hunger to know God more deeply. “Academics is [sic] not a problem,” he said. “Theology is easy for them to learn. Inner spiritual life is harder. In matters of sexuality and family relationships, they are desperate for integration.”
A Chinese priest who teaches at a seminary in Hebei province highlighted some of the challenges and opportunities for spiritual formation among seminarians. These include secularism, the absence of an episcopal conference, shortage of professors, decreasing vocations, and lack of resources in libraries.
One priest made this remark: “When I talk with Americans, the first question they ask is ‘are you part of the official church or the underground church?’” But I don’t think that is the question Jesus is going to ask me.” (Again, I wanted to shout “Amen!”)
During a panel discussion, one young sister from Hebei province made this observation: “The church in China is broken, but like the Eucharist we are made whole in Christ.” There is much to be grateful for embedded in that statement.
I’m thankful for the chance I had to be a part of this conference, and to learn more about the experience of the Catholic church in China. I came away with a realization that there is so much more to learn.