Removing the Splinter

How an American program bridged the gap between China’s divided Catholics.

It is rare that the pope writes a public letter to anyone, much less an entire nation’s Catholics. But tomorrow, Pope Benedict will do just that, sending a lengthy letter to China’s 12 million to 15 million faithful in hopes of healing internal and external rifts that date back more than half a century. There are many reasons for the timing of this unusual act, but among the most important is the existence of a small group of government-registered priests, nuns, and laity trained in U.S. Catholic institutions. The pope’s letter speaks about the prospect of reconciliation, but as he surely knows, these American-trained devotees in China’s parishes have been heeding that call for almost two decades.

Chinese Catholicism dates back to the 13th century, but the faith’s greatest period of growth began in the mid-19th century, when legions of missionaries built a Catholic infrastructure that included highly regarded seminaries and universities. That period came to an end in the mid-1950s, when the Communists began to seize and close Catholic educational institutions. Leading scholars fled or were imprisoned, and those who managed to remain (relatively) free were placed in the unenviable position of either following Vatican directives to defy the Communists or joining the Communist-organized Catholic Patriotic Association.

Though often identified as the “patriotic church,” the CPA is actually a heavy-handed regulatory agency that licenses and regulates open—or “registered”—Catholic practice, property, and personnel. The last issue is particularly touchy: The CPA controls local elections to appoint bishops, denying the Vatican its traditional authority to appoint. The underground Catholic Church, meanwhile, refuses to acknowledge the CPA’s authority in any matter. Nevertheless, both churches recognize papal spiritual authority and overlap so frequently that high Vatican officials now refer to China’s “one church with two faces.” For 25 years, mainstream media, Catholic advocacy groups, and many members of the Catholic hierarchy itself have—knowingly or unknowingly—perpetuated the image of a church divided. But the reality, as the pope’s letter will indicate, is quite different: For example, underground church communities have been known to worship in registered church buildings.

In addition to philosophical and theological concerns, the underground church draws followers for practical reasons, not least of which is a lack of registered priests to serve China’s Catholics, many of whom live far from registered churches and so make do with any priest available. In the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the situation was particularly dire: Estimates suggest that as few as 300 or 400 elderly priests survived the period (today, there are roughly 1,000 underground priests and 1,870 registered priests to serve the intermingling populations). Even today, 22 of China’s 138 dioceses lack regular clergy. Partly in reaction to this phenomenon and partly out of a desire to maintain control of China’s expanding religious communities, the CPA authorized the re-establishment of Catholic seminaries in 1982. Initially, the quality of instruction offered in these institutions was poor and outdated, delivered by elderly priests who had been cut off from Catholicism outside China since the early 1950s. It was supplemented—when allowed—by foreign scholars, including the Rev. Joseph Zen, who is now the cardinal archbishop of Hong Kong. But for China to have successful seminaries, it also needed Chinese priests with advanced training only available abroad. In 1991, after much bureaucratic wrangling, the Shanghai diocese sent four seminarians to the United States for M.A. degrees in divinity. With tacit approval from the Vatican, Maryknoll, a missionary order, became the coordinator of this Chinese Seminary Teachers & Formators Project, and in 1993, it helped to arrange for the arrival and education of 19 additional seminarians, priests, and sisters.

Today, one of the hallmarks of the project’s participants is their willingness to question themselves, their vocations, and their faith. It’s an unusual character trait in underground as well as registered Chinese churches, both of which remain extremely traditional, rigidly hierarchical, and reluctant to embrace Vatican II reforms. The Rev. Larry Lewis, the project coordinator, likes to emphasize “the personal, vocational and spiritual upheavals that are evoked in the phenomenon of culture shock,” and the transformative results. “You don’t need to teach them how to say the rosary. Instead, you help them look at themselves. After they do that, after they doubt, then they can go back and answer the questions of China’s youth.”

Maryknoll continues to coordinate the project—which the Vatican has now explicitly approved—with oversight from Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington and Cardinal Archbishop Francis George of Chicago. Numerous U.S. Catholic orders and universities give support by contributing in various ways, including tuition subsidies at the University of Notre Dame, Catholic University, Boston College, St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., and other American Catholic institutions. Project participants have earned advanced degrees in scripture, liturgy, church history, theology, and other areas. Most important, 90 percent of those who have earned degrees have returned to China. Fifty now serve the Chinese Catholic community as teachers, academic deans, rectors, spiritual directors, retreat house directors, and bishops’ secretaries. Four have been named bishops with the blessing of the pope, and one serves as the superior to a large congregation of nuns. It is difficult to approximate or overestimate the influence of this group—odds are strong that any registered Catholic seminarian or sister undergoing training will come into contact with a project participant and his or her American education.

I’m familiar with four project participants, all of whom are willing to challenge the status quo within the Chinese church, particularly its affinity for hierarchical, traditional, pre-Vatican II roles for sisters. In Shenyang, Fabian Han Fengxia, a determined 35-year-old sister with an M.A. in pastoral counseling from Fordham University, is running an innovative AIDS home-care program that partners her with the local municipal government and Catholic charities from overseas. Conservative factions in her diocese are uncomfortable with her work, but the program is popular with the local Center for Disease Control—which refers patients to her—and serves as an example to nuns eager to expand their roles beyond serving priests.

Han’s balance between two Catholic worlds—the government-supervised one in China and the universal church outside—is shared with the other project participants, and it is one reason that she and her American-trained colleagues are finding themselves tapped for leadership positions within the Chinese church. In 2005, in a first for a project participant, the Rev. Joseph Xing Wenzhi was named auxiliary bishop of Shanghai in a ceremony attended by high-level CPA officials and the Maryknoll superior general. Not coincidentally, the ordination was approved by both the pope and the CPA, thus providing a possible, informal road map to an eventual solution to disagreements over how to select China’s bishops.

In either case, hopes are high in China, Rome, and elsewhere that Xing and his U.S.-educated colleagues will play a leadership role over the coming decades in defining what it means to be Chinese and Catholic. Today, with Chinese seminary education much improved, the project is focusing increasingly on nuns and laity to improve their educations and strengthen their ties to the universal church. The most recent group of project participants was eight people strong and included five nuns and two lay members. Ideally, this emphasis will bring the project even closer to the pastoral concerns of average Catholics in China and—Lewis hopes—eventually render the project obsolete.

Yet even if the project comes to an end, its legacy is secure with the priests and nuns who are today connecting the universal church with the Chinese church in a manner that the pope’s letter can speak about only in theoretical terms. Whether or not diplomatic relations are ever restored between the Vatican and Beijing, Chinese Catholicism will continue on its distinctly Chinese path, led by well-trained, indigenous clergy who focus on pastoral concerns, and not diplomatic ones—not unlike the American Catholics who taught them.