Vatican City (AsiaNews) Fr Paul Pei Junmin, vice-rector and dean of studies at the seminary of Shenyang (Liaoning) is one of 22 priests of the official church who attended the audience of Pope Benedict XVI on 3 August. The pope greeted the group with "particular affection"; the priests responded with a song and with applause. The news spread across the world because it is seen as a modest sign that tension between Beijing and the Holy See is somehow easing.
A remarkable fact is that the 22 priests were all rectors, vice-rectors or spiritual directors of China's 12 major seminaries. They had just participated in a two-week refresher course about seminary education in St Ottilien monastery (Germany).
AsiaNews interviewed Fr Paul Pei Junmin about the situation in seminaries of the official Church in China.
From his words, a worrying picture emerges: a lack of personnel in general as well as a lack of adult spiritual figures, the fruit of persecutions of the Cultural Revolution; difficulty in educating "only children", the upshot of a birth control policy. But signs of vitality also appeared: restless youths on a quest for truth which leads them to join the priesthood, and "adult" vocations born of conversions of youths coming from non-Christian families. At the end, Fr Paul asked for more regular help from the universal Church in formation.
Here is the interview Fr Pei gave to AsiaNews:
What are the most urgent problems of formation of vocations in China?
Formation in physical, psychological, theological and spiritual maturity is called for and we do not have trained people. At the moment we have no problems to teach theology in China: there are Chinese priests who studied abroad and returned to the country, or else we invite professors from abroad to give short courses or lessons. We do not have many experts and personnel are scarce. Sometimes we must ask non-Christian professors to teach courses like Chinese language and literature. I myself teach at the seminary, I am responsible for administration and I am dean of studies. All at once! But spiritual formation is another matter.
The problem of vocations in China is that candidates who enter the seminary are not very mature especially from a psychological point of view. Now youths all come from families where they are the only child [a one-child law has been in force in China since 1979 ed.note]. Dealing with them is much more difficult: they are not used to being with others; they have always been spoilt at home by their parents; they have always been treated like royalty by their grandparents. Renouncing the wellbeing, peace and relationships padded in cotton wool to serve Jesus Christ and the Church is somewhat difficult for them. Our toughest and most urgent aim is to find the means of formation to enable them to grow in the gift of self and in service for others.
Another problem is that many youths who want to become priests come from rural areas and they have not even attended high school. So they need to study in a minor seminary even if they are older than other students in the same grade.
The course in St Ottilien was useful in understanding how to educate these people. It was very fruitful. It is the first time I have attended such a course abroad. We had the possibility not only to attend lessons but also to share our experiences, because every seminary has its difficulties and its successes. We shared contributions, ideas, proposals. Speaking for myself, I learnt the true meaning of priesthood.
Why was it not possible to discover this in China?
The point is that in China, people involved in formation are all very young, between 30 to 50 years at most. We are lacking a generation with whom to compare ourselves and who we could learn from. A generation is missing in China, that which would have been formed in the sixties and seventies, around the time of the Cultural Revolution. At St Ottilien, we found more mature people than ourselves who helped us.
How did you get there? Who chose you?
We were chosen by the Council of Chinese Bishops. They decided two places would be allocated to each seminary: one for the rector or vice-rector, and one for the spiritual directors of 12 seminaries. We should have been 24 in all, but the vice-rector of Wuhan and a rector of Jilin did not manage to come.
How is it possible that youths in China choose to become priests?
Most candidates come from long-standing Catholic families and from rural villages. They have lived in a spiritual environment from childhood and perhaps they found a priest or a sister who left a positive impression on them.
Youths in China are restless: they are searching for the true meaning of life. This search prompts them to approach the priesthood or religious life.
Are they any youths coming from an atheistic background, who converted when they were adults?
In my seminary, there are some youths who come from non-Christian families. Their parents do not understand their faith. They came to know about Christianity through their friends or schoolmates. For them, entering the seminary is difficult: their parents are not in agreement and they oppose the decision. Even for us, accepting them is a risk and we must be very careful: we do not know them, we do not know their background or their motivations; we do not know if they will manage to persevere. But some of them really follow this path well and after a while, even their parents become Christians.
What has this trip meant for you?
First of all I have understood that you must help and support us in education and formation. You should organize study programs for us to come here or organize them in China. This time, for example, in St Ottilien, there were only 22 people, the number was limited. I believe all of us who work in seminaries should enjoy such opportunities.
This trip was also important because of the rediscovery of the Benedictine spirituality, especially the motto of ora et labora (pray and work). It is important for Chinese culture. It is necessary to highlight these two aspects of spiritual life: one must not only contemplate, but also work and serve. This service to others is a trump card for our mission and evangelization. We want to do our utmost to ensure the Benedictine experience returns to China.
Finally, meeting the pope: it was a surprise! None of us would have ever imagined it; we did not even know we would be coming to Rome. But it was marvelous: the Church of Rome is the mother Church of all Churches, even the Chinese one. We wanted to show that the Church in China is united to the Holy See.
* Fr Pei, 36 years, entered the seminary at 16 years. Ordained in 1992, he worked for a year in the parish of the cathedral. He was later sent by his bishop to Philadelphia (USA) to study Sacred Scripture. He was part of the first group of Chinese priests sent to study abroad. Today, he teaches Sacred Scripture, is deacon of studies (he must organize the work of 26 professors) and he is vice-rector. The main seminary of Shenyang has 70 vocations. This year, 36 candidates wanted to join. The seminar welcomes new candidates every two years. Shenyang diocese counts 100,000 faithful.
According to latest statistics available to AsiaNews, there are at least 1000 seminarians in China spread across 19 official seminaries and five preparatory seminaries. The unofficial (or underground) Church has at least 800 seminarians. For the former group, formation is often limited by strict government control exercised through the Patriotic Association; for the latter, difficulties arise from the risks attached to working and living in unrecognized structures held illegal by the government, including the possibility of imprisonment.