Published Oct. 26, 2017
Pope Francis has long called on the church to become like a "mobile field hospital" responding to suffering and demographic changes such as aging populations. And, despite tensions within church affairs in China, the seeds of this idea have taken root there. For example, many Catholic parishes and congregations
are caring for elderly people left behind by rapid social change and freewheeling commercialism. In Fuan, a small city of North Fujian, the "field hospital ministry" concept is blossoming. Fuan is famous both as the cradle of Catholicism in China and as a place where Catholics are sharply divided. An underground Catholic bishop
was earlier this year taken away for a month's "political re-education." And while the official church bishop remains ex-communicated, supportive foreign bishops and clergy still regularly visit him. While this tricky political-religious imbroglio attracts international attention, there are few reports about the dynamism of social services provided by Fuan Catholics. In the 1990s, the Church opened a shelter for a small number of poor, elderly parishioners. From that humble start a modern institution has grown. The parish priest, serving in Fuan for more than a decade, takes an entrepreneurial approach to further develop the nursing home's facilities. Of three homes for the elderly in the small city, one is run by underground Catholics and one by officially recognized Catholics. The third, and smallest, is government administered. The official Catholic Church institution for the elderly, in a convenient city-center location, accommodates about 200 elderly people. Most residents are Catholics, however, there are also Protestants, atheists
and practitioners of traditional Chinese religions.
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Financial support comes from the families of most residents. However, the parish and some parishioners have for many years been giving between US$2,000 and US$4,000 a month to support about eighty residents who do not have such family assistance. Most of the 40 or so hired workers are Catholic women. As well as acting as managers, they provide medical care and do the cleaning and cooking. It is hard to find non-Christians to work in homes for the elderly because it is still stigmatized as "becoming a servant" or "washing the poop of others." However, belief in Jesus can bring with it a level of humility that accommodates caring for the aged. And every month volunteers, sent by the city administration or from local high schools, come to entertain elderly residents as well as offer free haircuts and massages. The home for the elderly also provided a workplace for two nuns who were dismissed by a problematic bishop elsewhere in China. There are plans, finances permitting, to expand operations by buying an adjacent building already abandoned. And being committed to the elderly of Fuan has improved church relations with non-Christian groups as well as with local authorities. The parish provides social welfare training, including by bringing in outside experts to conduct seminars on parent-teenager relationships and other subjects. Also, an historic house for the clergy built by Dominican missionaries in the 19th century was last year fully restored to include dormitories, parish offices and function rooms. Clearly, Chinese Catholics — even in Fuan — are not just struggling with internal divisions. They are working hard to bring the Gospel to contemporary China. And their unconditional commitment to care for society’s most vulnerable is very much in keeping with Pope Francis’ "field hospital" vision for the church.