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Consecrated virgins in China: A vanishing life of service

Modern life is a factor why not many young Chinese women are taking up the calling

Consecrated virgins in China: A vanishing life of service

The consecrated virgins of the registered Catholic Church in Fujian during their annual retreat held in the city of Wuyishan in mid-2016. (Photo supplied)

Michel Chambon, Shanghai
China

July 26, 2017

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Sister Theresa is an unusual Catholic nun. Although everyone in her Chinese parish calls her sister, and recognizes her as a nun, she is not quite the conventional nun.

She belongs to the tradition of "consecrated virgins," which has become increasingly rare around the world and in China. [Consecrated virgins are Catholic women who choose to remain celibate for their whole lives. They do not join a religious congregation and usually work under the direction of the local bishop.]

From the end of the 17th century until today, consecrated virgins have played a very important role within the church in China.

Sister Theresa was born in Fuzhou, southern China, to a Catholic family during the Cultural Revolution. In 1988, she joined the first training program organized by the Fuzhou Diocese for young women wanting to consecrate their lives to the service of the church. She was initially sent to serve in a parish for two years where she assisted with the needs of the local community.

Then, in 1990, she gathered with 11 other young women from Fujian province to live together in Fuzhou under the guidance of an older consecrated virgin. During a period of two and a half years, they took introductory courses organized by the diocese on scripture, catechism, church history, and music. Her learning also included mathematics, Chinese, English, politics and medical care.

From 1990 to the mid-2000s, the diocese trained six different groups of women to become consecrated virgins. But since then, the candidates became so rare that the diocese no longer organizes any formal training.

After her initial formation, Sister Theresa served in different local parishes of the Fuzhou Diocese. But since 2000, she has served in a diocese in the north of the province which remains extremely poor in vocations. It is a rural and extended diocese where a large majority of the Catholics are not a part of the registered Catholic Church, and instead organize their own alternative networks.

Local parish officials lead a very modest life and try hard to show how a peaceful and open Catholic Church can exist in China. 

Today, Sister Theresa serves in the parish of the diocesan administrator. The parish priest is often occupied by meetings and trainings with officials or church leaders. Given this, Sister Theresa plays a vital role offering a permanent presence within the only church of the parish. The parish territory is more than 130 kilometers long and of its 400,000 inhabitants, there are less than 200 people who regularly attend Sunday Mass.

Despite this, Sister Theresa is always active. First, she supervises the material life of the church: she manages the two people who help with cooking and cleaning. When a priest is there — at least every Sunday, and usually many other days of the week — she informs parishioners through social media and prepares material for daily Mass.

When someone is sick or passing away, she visits their family and makes sure that the proper prayers are offered.

Day by day, Sister Theresa maintains an extensive network of informal relationships that help local Catholics remain socially integrated and clearly visible.

During summer months, she helps organize youth camps for teenagers among Catholic families. Most grandparents are enthusiastic in registering their grandchild for the parish summer activities, but ensuring that they will effectively participate requires much effort from Sister Theresa.

She also guides the only seminarian of the diocese, who spends his summer break in the parish. This man is from China's north and does not know much about the customs and history of the local Fujian people. 

It is true that Sister Theresa does not wear any kind of habit. Indeed, she has never pronounced any vows. But she lives inside the church, like the priest, and everyone knows her importance.

With her simplicity and pragmatism, Sister Theresa facilitates many aspects of parish life. Still, she does not see why religious women should imperatively live communally in a distinct convent outside of the parish they serve.

Of course, she respects religious congregations. And sometimes, she even envies those women who share so much together. But she believes in the model of religious life that she has seen around her since childhood. She knows how larger congregations deal with their own struggles and power issues. She loves to repeat what the old sisters always said: "Sisters are not here to lead but to serve."

In her rural diocese, there are currently nine priests and four nuns. Only a few of them are from the diocese itself. Like Sister Theresa, most priests and nuns are from other dioceses.

A few years ago, there were eight, all living alone as consecrated virgins in one of the ten parishes of the diocese. But in the past few years, two of them got married, one left to study and strengthen her calling, and one has returned to her initial diocese. Luckily, a new sister from a religious congregation in the north of China has recently joined the diocese.

Nevertheless, the sisters refuse to lose their hope or their joy to serve. To support each other, they try to gather for a few days every three months. At the provincial level, they also organize a yearly spiritual retreat and a few days of training for all of them. In 2015, Sister Theresa even went to Hong Kong with a few others for a two-week of training at the Holy Spirit Center.

Sister Theresa is aware that these last 10 years, there has not been a single young woman in Fujian province who took the path of the consecrated virgins. So, even though most of the 90 consecrated virgins in Fujian province are today quite dynamic, most of them are in their 40s or 50s. They realize that their way of life may disappear soon from the church in China.

The urbanization of the country, the higher education and comfort of the Catholic population are factors that have led to their way of life becoming less appealing to young Catholic women. The increasing importance of diocesan priests and Catholic patrons over church life, and the institutional priority given to congregational religious life, have likewise played a role. The few Catholics who today express any interest in a consecrated life usually orient their choice toward a more visible congregation.

Nevertheless, Sister Theresa still demonstrates well that there are many ways to be a nun in contemporary China. Being a consecrated virgin can bring joy and growth to a woman, while benefiting the whole church she serves.

Michel Chambon is a U.S. based doctoral student who has spent the last two years in China researching for his dissertation on religion in the country.

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