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A threatened life of service

Theresa is an unusual type of person in the Catholic Church. Although everyone in her parish in China addresses her as Sister and recognises her as a religious, she is in fact a lay person, although not quite the conventional type.
Theresa belongs to the tradition of consecrated virgins, Catholic women who choose to remain celibate for their whole lives. They do not join a religious congregation and usually work under the direction of the local bishop.
Although in most places they do not divulge their state within the Church in the public arena, the modern practice in China has been somewhat different, with many of them taking on pastoral roles in parishes.
However, although they have a long history dating back to the early Church and in China to around the end of the 17th century, in the world today they are becoming an increasingly scarce commodity.
China is no exception to this trend, but they have played an important in Church life on the mainland over the centuries.
Theresa was born into a Catholic family during the Cultural Revolution in Fuzhou, southern China. Then in 1988, she joined the first training programme organised in recent times by the Fuzhou diocese for young women wanting to consecrate their lives to the service of God and neighbour through the Church.
Initially, she was asked to work among the local community as part of a parish outreach for two years.
But in 1990, she gathered with 11 other young women from Fujian province to set up a group of consecrated virgins to live a life in common in Fuzhou under the guidance of the more senior one in the community.
During the ensuing two-and-half years, they took introductory courses organised by the diocese on the scriptures, studied catechetical material, Church history and music. Theresa also took courses in mathematics, Chinese, English, politics and medical care.
From 1990 to the mid-2000s, the diocese trained six different groups of women for a life as a consecrated virgin. But since then, volunteers have become so rare that the formal training programmes were abandoned.
After her initial formation, Theresa returned to parish life and worked in several centres around Fuzhou, but after 2000, she moved to another diocese to the north, which has long suffered from a lack of vocations of any type.
It is a rural diocese with an expansive territory to cover and since a large majority of the Catholics are not a part of the official Church and prefer to organise their own alternative networks, it has been a big challenge.
Local parish personnel lead a modest life and try hard to give witness to how a peaceful and open Church can exist in China.
Today, Theresa works in a parish with the diocesan administrator. Although he is the parish priest, he is often occupied with meetings or attending training sessions put on by the local government for Church officials.
As a result, Theresa is the permanent pastoral presence in the parish, which runs for 130 kilometres in length with a population of some 400,000. However, less than 200 are regulars at Sunday Mass.
Despite this, Theresa is always active. She supervises the material life of the parish, managing the two people who help with cooking and cleaning. When a priest is there—at least every Sunday and usually on some other days during the week—she keeps the parishioners up to date through social media and prepares material for weekday Masses.
When someone is sick or dying, she visits the family and makes sure that proper arrangements are made.
She maintains an extensive network of informal relationships that help local Catholics remain socially integrated and clearly visible.
During the summer months, she assists at youth camps for teenagers. Most grandparents are enthusiastic in registering their grandchildren for the parish summer activities, but ensuring that they participate effectively is one of Theresa’s particular responsibilities.
She also takes a special interest in the only seminarian the diocese has during his summer vacation. But like Theresa herself, he is from outside the diocese and knows little about the diocese’s customs and history, or the lives of the local people.
She enjoys parish life and does not see why religious women should necessarily lead a community life in a district away from their workplace.
Although she admits that she sometimes envies them for the company they provide for each other, she always insists, “Sisters are not here to lead, but to serve.”
In her rural diocese, there are nine priests and four women with the same status as Teresa, with just a few of them from the diocese itself. A few years ago there were eight, all living alone as consecrated virgins in one of the 10 parishes.
However, recently, two got married, one left to study and one returned to her hometown. To support each other, they try to gather for a few days every three months and at a provincial level organise a retreat and a few days in-service.
In 2015 she came to Hong Kong for two weeks at the Holy Spirit Centre in Aberdeen.
Over the past 10 years, not one person in Fujian has followed her example and joined the consecrated virgins, so even though most of the 90 in the province are quite dynamic, most are in their 40s or 50s, meaning their way of life may disappear from the Church in China.
The urbanisation of the country, higher education and comfort of the Catholic population are factors that have led to their way of life becoming less appealing to young women.
The increasingly dominant role diocesan priests and Catholic patrons are playing in Church life, as well as the institutional priority given to congregational religious life, have also played a part.
The few who today express any interest in a consecrated life usually orient their choice toward a highly visible congregation.
Nevertheless, Theresa is a witness that there is more than one way to serve in the Church in contemporary China and says that being a consecrated virgin does bring joy and growth to the life of a woman, as well as benefit to those whom she serves.
Although she is not the first one, the only consecrated virgin to be canonised in modern times is Elizabeth Bailey. From England, in 1972 she became the first official saint among them since the third century.
Michel Chambon is a US based doctoral student who has spent the last two years in China researching for his dissertation on religion in the country (UCAN).
• Michel Chambon