Hong Kong — Catholic communities in China's northeastern provinces are using social media to evangelize in the freezing and smoggy winter while still offering pastoral care directly to the elderly Catholics to fill the digital gap, reported ucanews.com.
In Jilin, Heilongjiang and Liaoning provinces, the average temperature drops below freezing for four to six months a year. About 100,000 Catholics live in each of the three northeastern provinces.
"Our community will dispatch small gifts when evangelizing in summer," a Catholic in Harbin who identified herself as Teresa told ucanews.com. "But in winter it is just too cold and now that the smog gets serious year by year, it makes us reluctant to go out."
On Christmas Eve, the temperature in Harbin fell to minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Some ... families did not allow their elderly parents to attend the midnight Mass as they feared for their safety due to slippery roads at night," said a seminarian in Harbin. "So it is a custom that our priests would go and visit the elderly Catholics before Christmas to hear confession and deliver holy Communion for them."
In Jilin province, a Catholic webmaster who identified himself as Paul told ucanews.com that Sunday Mass numbers drop dramatically during the winter months.
"In our parish, the number of churchgoers on Sunday reduces to half from that of summer," Paul said. "But the attendees of course rebounded to normal on Christmas as it is one of the four most important feasts in China."
Teresa and Paul told ucanews.com that, during the freezing weather, the Internet and mobile apps become valuable evangelization tools.
"We use Wechat and QQ friends groups to connect fellow Catholics," Teresa said about the Chinese social media platforms similar to Twitter and Facebook.
Some college students from other Chinese provinces said online groups help them find church locations when they came to study in Heilongjiang.
Introduced in 2011, the Wechat app is getting more popular, with the number of users surpassing 600 million in China and 1.2 billion around the world last May. Wechat offers a public platform for organizations and many church groups in China use it to create online religious readings.
However, Paul, the webmaster, said he has reservations on how effective Wechat is due to the busy life of office workers and college students.
"Our Wechat public platform has 500 subscribers but the rate of page views is unsatisfactory," he said.
"The majority of the elderly Catholics don't use the internet or mobile apps to connect with the church. So family visits by parish priests are still necessary," he added.
In addition, news dissemination is restricted in China.
"We were once banned from reposting a news report from the website of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. It is an official announcement, but why can't we repost it?" Teresa asked.
Despite rapid Internet development in the country, China is often criticized for its lack of online freedom.
According to U.S.-based Freedom House, China ranked last among 65 countries in its most recent Internet freedom survey. Released last October, the survey determined its ranking based on three aspects: obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights.