I was deeply moved by the appeal that Benedict XVI made last Sunday at the Angelus, when he recalled the day "Pro orantibus," on November 21, which the Church dedicates to people consecrated to prayer in cloister. "Let us thank the Lord," the pope said, "for the sisters and brothers who have embraced this mission by dedicating themselves entirely to prayer and who live on what they receive from Providence." Benedict XVI also asked all of us to commit ourselves to "supporting monasteries in their material needs." And he added: "dear sisters and dear brothers, your presence in the Church and the world is indispensable. I am close to you, and I bless you with great affection!"
On the same day, a group of sisters asked me to buy a monstrance for them for Eucharistic adoration. I immediately bought them a new one for 1400 RMB, about 140 euros. In these recent years of work in China, of attention to the poorest and "least productive" Chinese, I have noticed that the "poorest of the Chinese Church" include sisters!
In China, there are officially no cloistered monasteries. The government has abolished them as "unproductive." But since the 1980's, there has been a great increase in women's religious institutes, connected to the diocesan structure. Their life is genuinely marked by poverty. And the reason is very simple:
They are women. In traditional society - as is still found today in rural areas - they are the most poorly educated, and have the least opportunity to study. Their parents spend money on their education only after they guarantee schooling for their sons, even when the girls are born first. This is assuming that the girls are permitted to be born, because often selective abortion is practiced on female fetuses. If the women then go to work, they do not have an easy role, nor are they paid properly (typically 30-40% less than men). The sisters and novices have to depend on a bishop (that's the way it is here) and on the economic resources that he is able to set aside for them. Many of them depend on elderly bishops who are also poor. If these bishops do not recognize [the underground Church], the economic problem becomes even more serious. The most troublesome problems arise when a bishop of the underground Church dies. In this case, the sisters no longer have any source of support, and not even anyone to acknowledge their existence. It often happens that the community splits in two: some seek an official bishop in order to survive, to be legally recognized and continue to exist. The other part, which remains in the underground Church, is no longer recognized as a congregation. The religious begin to find themselves in difficult economic conditions, and their meetings, being illegal from the point of view of the law, can create problems with the police. There are also some who, in the official Church, question whether they are really sisters, and this is truly senseless and causes great suffering. Sometimes the sisters, in order to remain together, try to get themselves recognized by the state as a "society" or "cooperative." The law does not allow people of different provinces to live together without legal approval of their "society," but then approval is denied, because everyone knows that they are sisters! This is the beginning of a Calvary for these women who, with no formal recognition, continue to live as sisters; novices and sisters who do everything they can to find a congregation that will take them abroad, amid so much discontent, denigration, and suffering. In this precarious situation, many vocations are lost or are marked by deep psychological and spiritual wounds.
In this disordered jumble, I has been moved whenever I have been approached by sisters who are visibly malnourished, or sick. I have discovered that they have about 100 euros a year to live on. In spite of all of their needs, they asked me to get them a monstrance, even a used one, to give to their community in order to enhance prayer at the parish where they work. In my heart, I immediately thanked the Lord, because prayer truly does bring us life. I also sought prosperous Catholics to obtain what was needed to make their little dream come true.