06/30/2007, 00.00
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Church of China, a by-product of persecution and the crisis of materialism

Past difficulties like the division between ‘official’ and ‘underground’ Churches and old and new persecutions have not stopped the Church’s growth. After years of ungodly and inhumanly ruthless materialism and despite many obstacles the Church is today open to the young, the intellectuals, poor migrants, people living with AIDS.
Rome (AsiaNews) – In the just published ‘Letter to Chinese Catholics,’ the Pope offers a totally new image of the Church in China, happy for the fidelity that Catholics have shown in almost 60 years of Communist persecution. At the same time he has called for the unity and reconciliation of official and underground Catholics, noting that the Church’s journey “is supported by the example and prayer of ‘witnesses to the faith’ who have suffered and forgiven, offering their life for the future of the Catholic Church in China” (n. 6).
It is oft repeated that China has changed, that it has new economic goals, a Communist ideology in crisis, an extremely corrupt leadership, an ambiguous religious policy that alternates between openness and refusals, novelty and harshness, modernity and jails. It is within this confused situation that the Church is evolving. In 1949 Catholics numbered 3 million, now they are at least 12 million. Slowly it is getting over the trauma of a division between a ‘patriotic’ and an ‘underground’ wing, between those who are with the party and those who are with the Pope.
Communism’s crisis and the Tiananmen Square massacre stripped China’s rulers of their mask and showed their real face, leading many ‘patriotic’ Catholics to come to their senses. The steadfast friendship shown by the various Popes, especially John Paul II, brought back unity and co-operation to once divided flock. Likewise the witness of so many martyrs persuaded so many to look at a faith that is more interested in truth than favours and compromises.
With 150,000 adults baptised each year, the Chinese Catholic Church is alive and well despite being persecuted. Conversions, mostly among the young, are taking place at a time when the government is expropriating the properties of the official Church and is trying to crush underground priests, forced to seek shelter for the night in different places to elude capture.
And yet the various Christian communities are able to produce and teach correspondence theology courses. In cities the preaching of the Gospel is done on computers and using CDs. In universities Christians are engaging intellectuals on today’s social problems like economic development, pollution, the crisis of materialism.
In the early 1980s the Church of China came out of the more than 20 years of cold darkness that was the Cultural Revolution still divided, its seminaries or convents shut down a generation earlier, with an aging and penniless clergy and no men or women religious to speak of. Today the Church of China is young and very united. In many parishes the average age of priests is around 34-35. In many areas female religious vocations are blossoming at the diocesan level even though the government still bans male religious vocations.
What problems the Church does have have also evolved. Where its pastoral activities were once mere attempts to survive, now they are heavily involved in charitable work on behalf of orphans, the elderly and people living with AIDS. And wherever the government has yanked away social support, Catholics now offer free medical care to the poor. The government has welcomed all these efforts by the official and underground Church because they satisfy needs it refuses or cannot fulfill.
Above and beyond problems due to persecution, the Church is also confronting a generational gap between new converts and the older generation.
Within the clergy and among women religious the Cultural Revolution has left a gap in the 50 to 60 age group, exactly those who today would play a leadership role or serve as spiritual directors. Without these people as role models, there is a risk that young people with a vocation will wear themselves out in activism, piety or the pursuit of a career.
Another bitter problem is the urgent need to move from a religion based on devotional practices and precepts to a more mature faith that involves a greater capacity to live and bear witness to the joy of the relationship with Jesus Christ.
In rural villages, many convert because Catholic priests are able to chase away demons or, through prayer, heal the sick. In China’s cities and megacities Chinese Catholics are learning to offer a faith-based response to contemporary problems in a society characterized by consumerism and the spiritual void it creates among young people.
In many universities Christians work side by side with scholars who are trying to think through the ills caused by the country’s unfettered economic development, problems like water and urban pollution, population movements, corruption and widespread disregard for the law.
Decades of ungodly and inhumanly ruthless materialism have left “people thirsty for God,” a priest told AsiaNews, but “one that helps to transform society.”
“The Church is called to listen to the silent scream in people’s heart” by showing that “a healthy partnership between faith and reason can improve human life and encourage respect for creation.”
In fact among the newly baptised many teach and study in universities, wondering about the meaning of life. However respectable China’s main religions may be the myths of Buddhism and Taoism fall far too short of meeting the tests of science and reasonableness.
Among the newly baptized there are also many poor and migrants, young people who have left the countryside for the city to make some money for themselves and their families and who are instead treated like slaves or illegal aliens, underpaid or even not paid at all. It is in the Church that they can find support and help.
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