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Contemplative presence in China

GUANGZHOU (SE): Reports on the current talks going on between the Vatican and Beijing appear to be focussed on the appointment of bishops, an understandable agenda, but it reflects only one particular approach to the Catholic Church in China.

A United States of America doctoral student, Michel Chambon, points out in an article posted on the UCAN website that this has not always been the case and it tends to focus the description of the Church in China as being entirely made up of bishops, diocesan clergy and religious.

Chambon says that limiting the discussion in this way ignores much of the history of the Catholic Church in China, as the monastic life is totally ignored.

He calls it a view through the secular lens, portraying an image of the Church as an administrative body that governs people’s lives. The only relevance of the vocation of sisters also appears to be their involvement in the administration of parishes and social services, like nursing homes and kindergartens.

Consequently Chambon says it should come as no surprise that the secular administration of China—the government—views the Church as a competitive secular structure.

However, the monastic drive has not died, as was evidenced by the establishment of the first contemplative monastery in China since the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949.

The Monastery of St. Augustine’s Garden was officially blessed and opened on 1 May 2014 in Lintou, in the province of Shanxi.

It was blessed and opened by Bishop Paul Meng Qinglu, from the diocese of Taiyuan; with Bishop Wu Jinwei, from Yuncheng; together with some 50 priests at a concelebrated a Mass in the courtyard of the sprawling complex.

Over 1,700 people gathered for the occasion and four bands provided musical accompaniment during the liturgy and opening ceremony.

The inspiration behind the new venture, Sister Mary Niu Shufen, commented, “The monastery is not my work, but God’s work, as he looks after both the small and the big work.”

People from at least eight different dioceses gathered for what was being touted as a momentous occasion, as what is always regarded as an integral part of the presence of the Church in any country, a house of contemplative prayer, was being reinforced in China.

The local director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, together with the local secretary of the Communist Party of China, both attended the opening Mass and congratulated the fledgling contemplative community on its achievement.

The 90-year-old Bishop John Baptist Wang Jin, from the local diocese of Yutze, was not able to attend due to ill health, but he gratefully received an apostolic blessing from Pope Francis and imparted his own blessing to all those taking part in the celebration.

Sister Niu said that she had always received great encouragement in her struggle to establish the monastery with its tiny community from Bishop Wang, as he had spent 20 of his years as a priest in prison, with 10 of them in solitary confinement, and has a profound understanding of the value of contemplative prayer as a result of his experience.

Sister Niu received her religious formation in an Augustinian monastery in England, which became her springboard for initiating the project to found a contemplative community in China.

Although for the Church in China, the new monastery is a place of contemplative prayer and a spiritual blessing, for the government it is simply a home for the care of aging people and a conference centre.

Its many arms and legs feature meeting rooms and a function hall, together with facilities for the care of the aged, as well as a chapel, cloister and the structures typical of a house of contemplative prayer.

But Chambon points out that looking only at the social service aspect overlooks the contemplative aspect of Church life that tradition still values highly, the monastic life.

He says that the two councils of the Church in the 19th and 20th centuries, Vatican I & II, reaffirmed the movement of the Council of Trent (1545 to 1563) in directing the Church towards a carefully articulated structure on a territorial and administrative basis, and away from the Gregorian Church of the Middle Ages, which prioritised networks of monasteries or spiritual centres.

“The modern Catholic Church has become an entity administered in well-defined territories, keeping precise registers and disciplining entire populations through multiple social services,” Chambon notes.

However, there was no move to make monasteries disappear and today, especially in Europe, where they attract, comfort and inspire pilgrims and visitors from well beyond their boundaries.

But reporting on the Church in China concentrates heavily on the activities of dioceses, their clergy and social services, to the almost complete exclusion of monasteries, which, although scarce, do exist, even with the consent of the government in some places.

Prior to 1949, China had an abundance of monasteries of different types, enclosed Carmelite nuns and Cistercian monks, both of which spawned foundations in Hong Kong, a well as the Dominicans and Franciscans.

Local contemplative communities that had grown in the big cities like Shanghai and Beijing are mostly today communities of diocesan sisters.

But Chambon maintains that there is a basic disinterest in monastic life in China today, one which he says cannot simply be explained by government political pressure on the Church.

China, like other countries marked by Buddhism, has many Buddhist monasteries. Although the religious life within them is different, the apparent similarities between Christian and Buddhist monasteries make Chinese Catholics suspicious. As a result, many Chinese Catholics remain reluctant to encourage the monastic life.

However, at a time when Chinese cities are growing to be more gigantic every day, causing radical changes in lifestyle, it is important that the Catholic clergy remains flexible in the structuring and regulation of the Church.

One of the main challenges faced by Chinese Catholics is the transition from a life based in rural communities to life in an urban setting.

In this context, monks and nuns living in their monasteries have a unique way of speaking to the artificial and saturated life of urban populations.

If the tradition looks at this monastic life as an irreplaceable contribution, this legacy should not be wasted and needs some support. In a rapidly changing China, the monasteries could become a priceless agent of announcing the gospel.

While efforts to find a fair and just way to appoint bishops are doubtlessly important, ensuring the sustainability and autonomy of monasteries in China is no less important, as it may help address some of the social changes in the Middle Kingdom.




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