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Old timers hold up the Church in rural China

HONG KONG (UCAN): Every evening, no matter how busy or tired she may be, Yiu reads the bible at home to her seven-year-old granddaughter. Sometimes friends from her parish come and join her.
Yiu lives in Changzhi, a diocese with 80 churches and 37 prayer houses for its 60,000-strong Catholic population. Among them, only four are in cities, 18 are in suburban areas and the rest in rural zones.
Local people do not believe that it is an exaggeration to tell visitors that you can find an old church in almost any village where there are Catholics today.
However, in the past two decades, the young and middle-aged have left the villages for the better opportunities in the cities. Their participation in Church life has also shifted from the rural scene to the city.
Shanxi is one of a handful provinces in China with a Catholic population of over 200,000. Many of them live in Catholic villages where the faith has been passed down the generations since Franciscan missionaries introduced it in 1716.
Now, the historic rural churches are mostly used by elderly people and children. “Some younger Catholics participate in religious activities in the cities, but some are affected by secularisation and have stopped going to Church. It is tough for them to maintain their faith, let alone pass it on to the next generation,” Father Shen Xuezhong said.
“It is now the elderly people who are the pillars of the Church and pass on the faith to their grandchildren,” Father Shen pointed out.
The change has led some clergy to set new standards for the baptism of children. Father Shen, for example, will not baptise children who are brought by their grandparents.
In one of the villages where Father Shen works, three toddlers were ready for baptism this Easter, but he only baptised two of them.
“My minimal requirement is that the parents should be present at the baptismal rite, but one couple did not appear and only the grandparents brought the child,” he explained.
His requirement is supported by Joseph Li, a parishioner at St. Stephen’s. Li said that most infants of Catholic parents are baptised within a month to 100 days after birth.
“Parents only need to bring their child to the church and the priest will baptise them. If they refuse to come, even for just one time, it means they have no sincerity. So then why do they want baptism for their children?” Li queried.
Father Zhao Libin, from Gaozhuang parish, chooses to place importance on Sunday school education.
“We have to grasp firmly the formation of the next generation to ensure the Church can continue to develop,” Father Zhao said. His Gaozhuang parish has a yearly average of 30 child baptisms.
A three-hour drive away in Taiyuan, the provincial capital of Shanxi, the Catholic population is estimated to be 80,000. The faith life at Our Lady of Sorrows parish remains strong even though there were no new baptisms this Easter.
“Grandparents take children to church every day after class for half an hour of prayer. It is their habit,” Sister Chen, from the Handmaid of the Holy Spirit congregation, explained.
“Although the elderly people may not be able to teach the grandchildren much doctrine or Church teaching, they instill faith in a subtle way that helps consolidate the minds of the younger generation,” she pointed out.
Besides passing on the faith to their own family, elderly people also give witness to their faith in nearby villages. “Our elderly parishioners give witness through serving the needy in other villages where there are no Catholics,” Wang Yana, a young student from Honggou parish in Taiyuan, said.
“When the people whom they serve feel loved and cared for they gradually accept the Catholic faith,” Wang explained.
An adult, whose legs had been amputated, was baptised recently. “He was moved by the Catholic people who had cared for him over the years,” Wang said.
However, Father Zhao noted he would encourage his parishioners to participate in the outreach programme to learn the appropriate ways of approaching people.
Father Shen explained that in Changzhi there are eight training courses each year. Each weekly course is attended by more than 100 people, who study the bible, catechism, liturgy, spirituality and other subjects.
Statistics collected by Hebei Faith Press show 1,593 people were baptised in Shanxi last Easter, making it the province with the second highest number of new Catholics after northern Hebei province, which the largest Catholic province in China with nearly one million people.
With an estimated Catholic population of 290,000, Changzhi and Taiyuan are the largest among the 10 dioceses in Shanxi. They are served by seven bishops, over 300 priests and 340 sisters.

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