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Seminaries in China and the challenge of accompaniment

Giorgio Bernardelli

(ZENIT News – Asia News / Milan, 05.22.2023).- The scandals associated with sexual abuse have led the Church to closely look into human and emotional development in seminaries. In different parts of the world, various approaches are being tried to train students for the priesthood.

How is the Catholic Church facing this issue in China given its very particular situation? This is the sensitive yet extremely topical subject that Father Fabio Favata, a PIME missionary in Hong Kong, had the opportunity to examine in his doctoral thesis in psychology, which he earned from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

His study is based on individual interviews and online tests carried out with about 30 seminarians and their teachers who live in two of the “official” theological seminaries where future priests are trained in mainland China.

The experience also provided more general yet valuable insight into young people and vocations in China today.

As Father Favata notes in the introductory part of his thesis, seminaries play a key role in the troubled history of Chinese Catholicism, from Mao’s revolution to the present day.

Communist authorities began shutting them down in the 1950s for more than two decades, ordaining new priests was impossible. Even after they reopened in 1982, they remained under major political constraints.

Nevertheless, seminaries were also places of progress over the past few decades, thanks to the patient work of many missionaries who – both local and foreign – took every possible path to lend a hand.

One name that stands out is that of Father Tommy Murphy. An Irish member of the Missionary Society of Saint Columban, he passed away last 6 January, but for a long time and in various capacities, he helped develop training activities in China.

At the same time, many Chinese seminarians and priests attended courses in Rome and other theological academies in the West, before returning to their own dioceses.

From 2007 to 2013, Father Favata lived in Beijing, studying psychology at Beijing Normal University; his work is part of the collaborative efforts that are so important for PIME.

“From my teacher, Father Giancarlo Politi, I learnt that in China, if you keep a low profile, a way can eventually be found. And then you can do a lot of things,” Father Favata said.

Of course, even in China, seminaries face certain problems today, starting with a drop in vocations to the priesthood.

“If you just look at the figures, considering both ‘official’ seminaries and ‘underground’ communities, from minors to theology, the number of seminarians has gone from 2,400 in 2000 to an estimated 420 in 2020,” Father Favata explained.

This is also a consequence of China’s one-child policy, which was imposed by the government until a few years ago to limit family size. However, this is not the only reason.

Today, “Exercising the priestly ministry is also more demanding given a wide generational gap between young priests and confreres ordained before the Cultural Revolution. While external pressures can in some cases strengthen the faith, in others, they favour leaving the ministry.”

What is more, being young today in China has changed, with new opportunities offered by the digital world, but also the unease vis-à-vis certain forms of religiosity anchored in the traditions and devotions of Catholicism of the 1950s.

“Also for this reason, I was interested in looking at how much focus there was on human and emotional development in today’s seminaries in China,” said the PIME missionary.

“I discovered that people are aware of the importance of this challenge, and that they have to deal with many concrete difficulties, starting with overcrowded seminaries and the extremely small number of teachers.”

While today dioceses all over the world are increasingly conscious of the need for individualised paths, with small communities of young people training for the priesthood with greater direct contact with parish life, in China for contingent reasons the opposite is happening with few overcrowded seminaries. In one case, about a hundred seminarians are in the same place.

With pandemic restrictions (which were slowly lifted later on), the opportunities to study abroad were greatly reduced. The number of teachers is also small and rapidly changing. “The result is that they are unable to follow young candidates for the priesthood as they would like,” Father Favata explained.

While “teachers are generous and well aware of the problems, and in terms of human development, for example, have introduced courses that address the topic of emotional development, they lack proper training and can count on inadequate means.”

Thus, “seminarians find it hard to trust, and tend to be inward-looking, which is not good at all for this type of journey. Everything related to the sphere of sexuality remains taboo. Sometimes, past wounds create mistrust between different groups.”

For this reason, however, it becomes even more important today not to leave seminarians in China and their teachers alone, which is what Father Favata plans to do. In fact, he insists on this very crucial aspect of the human development of future priests, and is already working on it in cooperation with the Diocese of Hong Kong.

“In the future, it will be important to train Catholic psychologists who can help seminaries in China. The work of mediation between China and the outside world is crucial; some priests have been doing this in recent years after they had the opportunity to study outside the country. The important thing today is to be there, whichever way one can. Crusades are of no use to anyone.”