I am grateful for the opportunity to have met Bishop Peter Zhang, the first Chinese bishop of Hanyang, on a number of occasions in the few years before he died in 2005 at the age of 91. He succeeded Bishop Edward Galvin, co-founder of the Columbans and a native of my own County Cork in Ireland. As one of many victims of religious persecution by the Chinese government, Bishop Zhang spent 24 years as a priest in prison. He was a strong and faith-filled leader until his death. It has taken some time for a new leadership to begin to emerge, but I now sense new life in what was the first mission of the Missionary Society of St. Columban.
Fr. Chen Tian Hui was in his first year of theological studies in 1956 when the local seminary was closed. He found a job as a bus driver until 1993, when Bishop Zhang invited
him to be ordained a priest for the diocese. Even though he is now 83 years of age, since the bishop died Fr. Hui continues in the role of Apostolic Administrator. There is little hope that a new bishop will be appointed to Hanyang Diocese in the near future due to its weakened position.
In the meantime, Fr. Joseph Li Chang Jie, from Lu Lin Hu, a local town, has taken on the administrative and planning work. Due to lack of freedom at the time, Fr. Jie was ordained in 2001 in an out-of-the-way church with twelve or so present in a very short night time ceremony. But so much has changed in just ten years; this year Fr. Zhang Wei, who recently returned from three years of theology studies in Rome, was ordained with great public fanfare at Huang Lin Church, followed by a sit-down meal with 850 guests in a local restaurant. Prior to 1949 there were about 100 churches and chapels in the Hanyang Diocese, but after 1953 there were no public religious activities in any church. Most churches and chapels were demolished or transferred to other use during the Cultural Revolution.
Recently I saw one church in the countryside being used as a chicken coop; our cathedral in the city was converted to a factory for making electrical fittings in the 1960s. The Church is still in the process of recovering property confiscated in that period. Fr. Jie tells me that during the Cultural Revolution people were forbidden to pray, but in the early 1980s he saw his parents praying in a dark room with some neighbors. Clearly persecution and government decrees did not prevent all practices of the faith. Fr. Jie also tells me that he was nine years of age when he first attended Mass in 1985 and that over the past twenty years they have enjoyed ever increasing freedom to practice their faith publicly.
Fr. Jie speaks energetically about the diocese’s five to ten year plan. He recognizes the limited opportunities for the Church in the rural area, which was the heartland of Church life in Hanyang Diocese prior to 1949. There is still work to be done in the rural area, primarily with the very young and the elderly. In many country churches the Sisters run a summer course for children from nine to sixteen years of age where, among other things, they teach the children some of the basics of the practice of the faith. Simplicity of life is close to hand even when running such summer courses. There are usually problems with power outages, probably due to overload resulting from the extensive use of air conditioners, but they get by with candles. Unfortunately, when the water is cut off because there is no electricity to run the pump, things become infinitely more difficult.
However, priests and Sisters agree that they need to give priority to pastoral work and missionary outreach in the urban centers. In the words of Fr. Jie, “The majority of the youth have gone to the city so we must follow them there.” That may be easier said than done. In the city the Church has limited access to land so the first step is to negotiate with the government to acquire a place to build parish centers. This is not a simple matter in any part of China, but in some places it is more difficult than in others. In Hanyang Diocese it continues to be rather difficult. Recently in one town, after a public demonstration by Catholics protesting the government’s inaction on the matter, land was assigned to the Church. The basis of the land grant is a State commitment to compensate for property confiscated since 1949.
The twelve Sisters, who belong to two communities in the diocese, are committed to the project of Church revival, but they also need to ensure an adequate income. Sister Li Shuang Qun told me that they want to run a home for the elderly. There is a need, and there are facilities that could be modified for the purpose but it seems that other interests have so far stood in their way. The Sisters would like to make a living from running
the home and at the same time dedicate themselves to the care of the elderly as an apostolate. The diocese has five priests, twelve Sisters and five seminarians. They want to put more energy into formation of Church personnel, including laity, but locally there is little opportunity. A few laity are Columban Fr. Thomas Ryan’s tombstone in Hanyang Diocese. currently preparing for the mission, one in a two year course in Beijing, another in a six month course in Handan. Fr. Jie wants to specialize in personal faith development. He also wants priests and Sisters to help train catechists at a local level, but the problem of adequate facilities has yet to be solved. He has been behind the organization of a local, one year course for catechists in which twenty people are participating, but the facilities are poor and it costs U.S. $15,000 a year to cover the cost of teachers’ wages. A former seminarian from Hanyang directs the program.
The active priests and Sisters are relatively young and want to attract youth to the Church, but other than personal contact they have no organized strategy for this. They desperately need urban centers from which they can work and to which they can invite youth. For a Church that has been through so many difficulties in the past 60 years, it is also likely that they will now find a way forward in faith through these more recent challenges