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Acute shortage of priestly vocations forces Church to seek alternatives

Throughout China, seminaries are standing empty

Acute shortage of priestly vocations forces Church to seek alternatives
The Montecorvino Seminary in Shanxi reporter, Jinan

January 25, 2013

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One-third of China’s 12 government-recognized regional seminaries have suspended operations in recent years for a variety of reasons.

The most recent is the Montecorvino Major Seminary in northern Shanxi province. It failed to recruit new seminarians, retain teachers and suffered as a result of several disputes among its administrators.

Two weeks ago, local bishops and diocesan representatives agreed to close the seminary temporarily for two years.

One of the administrators who made this painful decision said he worried that it will be more difficult to recruit students in future due to a shortage of priestly vocations.

This same problem saw two seminaries – one in the northern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and the other in eastern Shandong province – stop enrolling students in 2006 and 2009 respectively.

Another is the Sheshan Seminary in Shanghai. Here the diocese suspended classes “until further notice” as a result of the fallout following the controversial ordination of Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin in July. He has been held under house arrest at the seminary since then.

Acknowledging a lack of priestly vocations is common problem around the world, Bishop Joseph Zhang Xianwang of Jinan said China’s “one-child policy” has handed the Church the added challenge of trying to attract only sons to be priests.

Soon after the Holy Spirit Seminary in Shandong closed, Bishop Zhang decided to open its doors to the laity. Last year, his diocese organized nine training courses there, each lasting 1-2 weeks and which attracted 60-100 people.

A team comprising several priests, nuns and lay leaders is responsible for the formation work. They have also invited experienced priests from neighboring Hebei province to give lectures, the 48-year-old bishop said.

However, after receiving training some laypeople turned to a Protestant way of evangelization, he said.

“They put too much stress on small communities and the role of the laity. Some even prefer holding private prayer meetings instead of going to church and receiving the sacraments.

“So I have asked priests and teachers to talk more about the Church hierarchy and discipline,” the bishop noted.

Father Joseph Liu Baocun of Xingtai, once a seminary teacher, agrees local dioceses should switch their focus to laity formation as priestly vocations are dropping. But he cautioned that quality is more important than quantity.

He blamed the chaotic situation in the China Church on the failure by major seminaries to meet proper standards.

If priests receive below-standard training, the overall quality of laypeople drops too, he noted.

“To achieve effective laity formation, we must target parishioners who are not only knowledgeable, but also morally sound. Recruitment should be strict, or we will repeat the failures in priestly formation,” Fr Liu stressed.

Another priest from Hebei who only wished to be identified as Fr John is also concerned with the quality of teachers.

He sees local dioceses and parishes carrying out laity formation in their own way. 

“If there was more collaboration, we could solve the problem of poor teachers and make our training more professional,” said the young priest.

According to Hong Kong diocese’s Holy Spirit Study Centre, the number of priestly vocations and lay faithful in China demonstrates a “plateau phenomenon” following three decades of reform and opening-up. Rapid growth reached a peak in the 1990s which could not be sustained through the new millennium.

In the government-sanctioned “open” Church, for example, there were 70-80 new priests being ordained each year from 1999-2004, but then that number dropped sharply to less than 10 in 2007.

Some regional seminaries that once had more than 100 students now only have 30 or less who receive at least seven years of philosophical and theological education before becoming priests.

Underground seminaries face even worse conditions, lacking facilities, teachers and students. Continuity of their curricula is often affected by the political situation.

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