Why are most of China's Easter baptisms adult?
Newly refocused Easter survey points to thirst for truth among stressed city dwellers
It took eight years of struggle for Maria (not her real name) to get baptized this Easter.
“I grew up in a military camp, listening to revolutionary songs and watching revolutionary movies all through my happy childhood,” she says. “Since I am a Communist member and I’ve been appraised as ‘outstanding’ every year, my family feared that joining the Church might affect my prospects.”
Her father, a retired military officer, warned her when she first got to know Father Su Yaxi in 2005: “We Communists are atheists. There is no God in the world. You can make friends with the priest but you are not joining the Church.”
So Maria gave up the idea of conversion. A few years later, her husband helped Fr Su find a new church site then, not long after, his workplace offered him a transfer to the city. Applying for a transfer like this is difficult without guanxi, or influential friendships. Maria firmly believes “this was Jesus’ blessing on us.”
But the move was not the end of their problems; in fact life got worse. In 2011 Maria suffered a bout of acute depression caused by family and career problems. She was almost on the verge of suicide when she remembered Fr Su and the Bible he gave her.
“Fr Su once cured my insomnia by using acupuncture,” she says. “But with his words he healed my heart.
“He told me that God calls on people in different ways. If you have religious faith, you can gain an insight into all kinds of suffering and pain.”
Now a member of the Hengshui (Jingxian) diocese in northern Hebei province and no longer dependent on anti-depressants, Maria is a member of the parish choir and an enthusiastic advocate of the Gospel.
Hebei is a major Catholic province. Several of its priests have noticed more and more stressed-out city dwellers, just like Maria, desperate for some meaning in their lives, are finding their way to the Church there.
The latest figures from FICS, the Hebei-based Faith Institute of Cultural Studies, seem to support that impression. This Easter, Hebei province welcomed a healthy total of 3,647 new Catholics. Xingtai and Handan dioceses, both in Hebei, recorded the highest baptism figures of all the 101 dioceses in the nationwide survey.
Significantly, of the total 16,748 baptisms that took place in China this Easter, 70 percent were of adults, which bears out the priests’ observations about city dwellers looking for meaning and truth.
The nature of the survey itself was significant too. It is the sixth of its kind conducted annually by FICS since 2007, but the first to focus only on baptisms on Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.
Its organizers believe this change will result in a more accurate reflection of the real picture.
“The total number of new baptisms is lower than last year’s 22,104, as some dioceses used to provide their statistics from January 1 to Easter,” explained Sister Li Guoshuang of the FICS.
“The biggest difficulty in collecting the figures is that the people in charge of many dioceses and parishes don’t register in detail the exact number of new baptisms.
“In some dioceses, because of imperfect hierarchical structures and the co-existence of ‘open’ and ‘unregistered’ Church communities, the figures are incomplete.”
This year, one of the most populous dioceses, Shanghai, did not provide any statistics on new baptisms because of a “commonly known reason,” according to a footnote in the survey. This is an oblique reference to the controversial episcopal ordination of Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin last July and the critical illness of Coadjutor Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian since Christmas.
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