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Eastern Asia sees drastic drop in vocations

The Church in eastern Asia is facing a drop in vocations, turning religious congregations and mission societies into an aging group.

In China, religious life remains a sensitive topic to discuss and research. Foreign missionaries were expelled in the 1950s and when religious activity was revived in the 1970s, virtually no religious congregations still existed on the mainland.

Currently, there are no government-approved congregations operating in China, while international religious groups are banned from establishing houses and convents. Foreign-based congregations that return to work in China tend to do it quietly.

Consequently, numbers of religious men in China are unavailable. However, it is an open secret that some Chinese bishops and priests belong to religious congregations. It is believed that a portion of the priests and sisters who studied abroad are religious who have secretly joined congregations.

But women religious have seen their numbers drop by four per cent to 4,780 between 2011 and 2014, according to the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong.

Convents established since the 1970s are mostly diocesan-run, which sometimes leads to conflict. In recent years, several convents have disbanded as independent-minded sisters sought to take more control of their own affairs and not be totally subject to a local bishop.

Sister Teresa Hu commented that a lack of formation often leaves many convents without a sense of individual identity.

“Some convents incorporate whatever aspects of religious life from other convents. It blurs the charism of their own,” Sister Hu said.

Sister Clare Chen, who served in eastern China, said she is the only one out of her group who has remained with her congregation since taking temporary vows in 2013.

“When we were assigned to parishes, we had no practical experience as our formation was theoretical,” she said, adding that a lack of education and formation left the women unprepared to deal with the pastoral challenges they faced in their assigned parishes.

Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, from Hong Kong, the former provincial of the Franciscans for China, pointed out that much like the rest of the world, an increasingly secularised society in the greater China region has affected the Church and the number of people considering religious life.

Citing China as an example, he said, “Vocations that flourished two decades ago dropped drastically after the year 2000.”

He noted that the Central and Southern Seminary in Wuchang and the Sichuan Seminary in Chengdu had only eight students between them.

“I am not optimistic that the situation will improve,” he reflected.

Bishop Ha explained that he believes that the drop-off in numbers is “partly because of China’s one-child policy and partly because some potential candidates give up their vocations after realising they have to deal with the government and take care of many things other than Church affairs.”

Outside mainland China, Chinese Catholic communities in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan all have more foreign priests than locally born. There are 68 Chinese and 163 non-Chinese religious men in Hong Kong.

“These dioceses still rely greatly on the assistance of foreign missionaries. (But) religious congregations in general are aging,” Bishop Ha said.

In Taiwan, 1,500 religious men and women, belonging to nearly 100 congregations, account for 0.5 per cent of the Catholic population. In other words, there is one religious for every 200 Catholics.

South Korea is regarded as a growing Church. Its Catholic population of 5.5 million—10.6 per cent of the total population—is the largest proportion in eastern Asia.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea says there were 1,574 religious men and 10,160 religious women in the country as of 31 December 2014. Statistics also showed a 35 per cent drop in novices since 2004.

Such a decline is also being felt by the Korean Mission Society.

“There were about 30 seminarians when I was rector in 2008. Now, it has 22,” Father Andrew Kim, the society’s superior-general, said.

“The drop is especially severe among sisters, as women’s status in society is rising. Since patriarchy is obvious in the Church, they think religious life is not fair,” he added.

For young people, “Living a religious life is hard in their eyes—there is no freedom, no private space, but many rules to follow,” he went on.

Father Kim believes that individualism and technological advancement have affected religious life. Much like society at large, religious can be found browsing their computers during free time.

“Some are also reluctant to be completely obedient to the congregations as we were in the past,” Father Kim reflected.

Of Japan’s 127 million people, Christianity accounts for 1.6 per cent of the population, figures from the Agency for Cultural Affairs reveal. About one million are Catholic, but only about 440,000 of them are Japanese.

As in the broader society, the aging of religious is a challenge. The average age of the 1,923 priests in 1975 was 50; by 2014 it had risen to 65.

There are more local religious brothers (134) than foreigners (52), with an average age of 67. Of Japan’s 5,216 sisters, 4,881 are Japanese. While no average age is available, a staff member of the bishops’ conference said in one congregation it is 80.

The Japanese bishops said in their report to the Synod for the Family that under such a scenario, some young people increasingly perceive the Church as a club for elderly people.


Church leaders added that in today’s Japan, it is necessary that priests speak a second language in order to deal with congregations which can be more than half non-Japanese-speaking. (UCAN)