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Secularized societies, aging religious affect Church in East Asia

Widely disparate countries face their own special challenges
Secularized societies, aging religious affect Church in East Asia

Nuns offer prayers at the funeral of the late head of the underground Catholic Church in Shanghai, underground Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang of Shanghai, on March 22, 2014. An increasingly secularized environment is among the factors leading to a drop in vocations in China and elsewhere. (Photo: AFP/Peter Parks)

Published: July 23, 2015 04:48 AM GMT
Updated: July 27, 2015 05:09 AM GMT

Pope Francis declared that 2015 would be an international Year of Consecrated Life. In a series of features, ucanews.com explores the status of religious life throughout the regions we cover. In our second installment, today's feature examines religious life in East Asia.


Challenged by secularized societies, the Churches in East Asia are facing a drop in vocations, turning the religious congregations or mission societies into an aging group in the Church. Political factors detract from the joy of religious life in China. 

Greater China:

Religious life remains a sensitive topic to discuss and research in China. Foreign missionaries were expelled from China in the 1950s. When religious activity was revived in the 1970s, there were virtually no religious congregations left.

Currently, there are no government-approved congregations operating in China, while international religious orders are banned from establishing houses and convents. Foreign-based congregations that return to work in China tend to work quietly.

Thus, the numbers of religious men in China are unavailable. However, it is an open secret that some Chinese bishops and priests belong to religious congregations. It is believed that a portion of the priests and nuns who studied abroad are religious who secretly joined the congregations.

Women religious have seen their numbers drop by four percent to 4,780 from 2011-2014, according to the Hong Kong diocese’s Holy Spirit Study Center.

Convents established since the 1970s are mostly diocesan-run, which sometimes leads to conflicts. In recent years, several convents have disbanded as independent-minded nuns sought more control from their local bishop.

Additionally, a lack of formation leaves many convents without a sense of individual identity, Sister Teresa Hu told ucanews.com.

“Some convents incorporate whatever aspects of religious life from other convents. It blurs the charism of their own,” said Sister Hu.

Sister Clare Chen, who served in eastern China, said she was the only one out of her group to remain with their religious congregation since taking temporary vows in 2013.

“When we were assigned to parishes, we had no practical experience as our formation was theoretical,” she said.

A lack of education and formation left the women unprepared to deal with the pastoral challenges they faced in their assigned parishes, she said.


Members of religious congregations attend a vocations camp in Wenzhou, China. (Photo: ucanews.com)


Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-Shing of Hong Kong, former Chinese provincial for the Franciscans, told ucanews.com that much like the rest of the world, an increasingly secularized society in the greater China region has affected the Church and affected the number of people considering religious life.

Citing the China Church as an example, he said “vocations that flourished two decades ago dropped drastically after the year 2000”.

He noted that Central and Southern Seminary in Wuchang and the Sichuan Seminary in Chengdu had only eight students combined.

“I am not optimistic that the situation will improve,” he said.

Bishop Ha explained the drop-off in numbers was “partly because of China's one-child policy and partly because some potential candidates give up their vocations after realizing they have to deal with the government and take care [of] many things other than Church affairs”.

Outside mainland China, Chinese Catholic communities in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan have more foreign priests than local born. For example, there are 68 Chinese and 163 foreign religious men in Hong Kong.

“These dioceses still rely greatly on the assistance of foreign missionaries. Religious congregations in general are aging,” said Bishop Ha.

In Taiwan, 1,500 religious men and women, belonging to nearly 100 congregations, account for 0.5 percent of the Catholic population. In other words, there is only one religious for every 200 Catholics.


South Korea:

The Church in South Korea is regarded as a growing Church. Its Catholic population of 5.5 million amounts to 10.6 percent of the total population — the largest proportion in East Asia.

According to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, there were 1,574 religious men and 10,160 religious women in the country as of Dec 31, 2014. Statistics also showed a 35 percent drop in novices since 2004.

Such a decline is also felt by the Korean Mission Society.

“There were about 30 seminarians when I was rector in 2008. Now, it has 22,” said Father Andrew Kim, the society's superior-general.

“The drop is especially severe among nuns as women’s status in society is rising. Since patriarchy is obvious in the Church, they think religious life is not fair,” he said.

For youth, “living a religious life is hard in their eyes — there is no freedom, no private space but many rules to follow,” he said.

Individualism and technological advancement have affected religious life, he said. Much like the society at large, congregation members can be found browsing their computers during free time.

“Some are also reluctant to be completely obedient to the congregations as we were in the past,” said Father Kim.



Of Japan’s 127 million people, Christianity accounts for 1.6 percent of the population, according to the Agency for Cultural Affairs. About 1 million are Catholic, but only about 440,000 are Japanese.

As in the broader society, the aging of religious is a challenge. The average age of 1,923 priests in 1975 was 50; by 2014 the average age was 65.

There are more local religious brothers (134) than foreigners (52), with an average age of 67. Of Japan's 5,216 nuns, 4,881 are Japanese. While no average age was available, a staff member of the bishops’ conference said the average age of one congregation is 80.

Under such a scenario, “some young people increasingly perceive the Church as a club of the elderly,” the Japanese bishops said last year in their report to the Synod on the Family. The Church leaders also identified that a second language is needed in the formation of local priests and religious to minister to migrants.

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