The Chinese Catholic Church's response after the May earthquake in Sichuan province helps show the growth of the church and offers possibilities for how Catholics can grow in their faith, said a panel of three Chinese Catholics.
Within days of the earthquake, church social service centers as well as diocesan staff and priests traveled to the area to help assess the damage, and they collected donations and delivered relief.
That could not have happened in the 1980s, when the church began emerging from decades of suppression, said Father John Ren Dahai, a Chinese priest who has spent several years doing postgraduate work and independent research in the U.S.
"With little resources, the first task of the church was survival," Father Ren told about 80 people gathered in Belleville in early October for a conference on the Chinese church.
But after church leaders rebuilt and reclaimed buildings, they began offering social services, including medical clinics and disaster relief teams, he said.
Social service "is a sign that the church is becoming more mature and forward-looking," Father Ren said.
Father Ren spoke during the 23rd National Catholic China Conference, sponsored by the New Jersey-based U.S. Catholic China Bureau and the Center for the Pacific Rim at the University of San Francisco. Other panelists were Sister Rong Lina, a member of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of China, who spoke about the role of the Bible in forming Chinese people of faith, and Father Peter Chen Tianzhi, a priest of the Qingdao Diocese.
All three are participants in the Maryknoll-coordinated Chinese Seminary Teachers and Formators Project, which brings young Chinese church leaders to the United States for study.
Father Chen, who is doing doctoral studies in counseling and psychology at Loyola College in Baltimore, returned to China for two months over the summer, and for a month he worked with government-affiliated psychologists counseling quake victims. He said he also helped the other professionals work on a treatment plan for victims.
"I appreciated the education I received at Loyola," he said.
Father Chen said that, in many cases, parents "were so desperate" and full of despair because they lost their only child in the earthquake.
"Most of the time, I did not say much, but listened with compassion and empathy," he told Catholic News Service in an e-mail after the conference. "I used basic counseling skills to counsel them.
"It worked for most of them," he said. "However, three couples were in despair and the usual counseling skill did not help them. At this point, I asked them: 'Do you have religious faith?'
"Two couples said yes. Then I continued: 'What does your child, regardless if he/she is in heaven or under the earth, wish you to do?'
"This question can give them courage to continue to live," he said.
"One couple said that they had no religious faith. I told them that I do, and I do believe their son is still alive (spiritually). My faith ... touched them and changed their attitude toward life," he said.
In her talk, Sister Rong said "the effects of the earthquake are still being experienced far and wide, and the relief effort is just beginning."
"The Catholic Church can help people to articulate their pain and even their anger through prayers of lament," such as those found in the Book of Psalms, she said. "Knowing that God cares for them and suffers with them could be very comforting and liberating."
"We are trained as Christians to thank God and to praise God at all times," she said, adding that a continuously positive outlook "is not true to our life experiences; it is not true to who we are; neither is it true to who God is."
Father Ren said that besides a growth in social services the church had seen an improvement in religious education that resulted in "a profound missionary role" for the laity. He spoke of "a variety of activities being held at almost every parish on weekends and holidays," including "Bible study, catechism classes, Marriage Encounter, charity action groups and youth camps."
"The lay missionaries often sacrifice their holidays to go to different places to preach the good news," he said. "They go before the clergy and, in a sense, are like St. John the Baptist, who prepared people for the coming of the Lord. In an atheistic country with very limited freedom in using media for evangelization, it is those lay missionaries' words and deeds that have become the living witnesses of Christ for the society."
A growing role for the laity could help Catholic clergy. Father Chen said many Chinese priests are isolated socially and spiritually and face tremendous pressures.
Priests face challenges from the local government, non-Catholics, parishioners and sometimes in relationships with other church workers, said Father Chen.
"Given the challenges, most priests did not receive adequate (seminary) training about how to deal with these challenges and how to cope with the pressures," Father Chen said.
In 2001, Father Chen was named spiritual director of Holy Spirit Seminary in Jinan, the capital of China's Shandong province. He also served as spiritual director for two religious communities.
"I heard a lot of confusion, sadness, anger and even abnormal behaviors," when talking to religious, Father Chen said. "In the beginning, I thought that it was because they were not pious enough or they did not pray hard enough," so he counseled them to pray more.
However, when he returned to China this summer, he discovered their problems had worsened.
He said that, after a year of study, he thought, "Spirituality is not the answer to their problems -- maybe psychology."
This time, he said, he advised them to discern what the major problem was and offered them skills to deal with anxieties and pressures.