(Mattters India) Roman Catholics are rapidly increasing in larger cities across China, but efforts to train more priests have been held back by the lack of applicants for seminaries, according to the Shanghai-based China Daily newspaper.
Zou Yunlong, a 32-year-old student at the National Seminary of the Catholic Church in Beijing, told China Daily of the cost of being a Roman Catholic priest, including being forbidden to get married and have children, living and possibly dying alone, and constant readiness to serve his parishioners at any hour of the day for the rest of his life.
“Your parents will lose the person they should rely on in the future,” he said. “It’s a process of constant self-reflection to see if I am fit for the priesthood.”
Despite this, Zhou remains steadfast.
“Even today, my family is still trying to change my mind. But I am as committed as ever,” he added.
The number of Catholics in China has risen steadily in recent years, prompting the national seminary and six other institutions across the country to widen the talent pool for the priesthood.
But finding and attracting applicants into the church has proven to be difficult. According to Bishop John Baptist Yang Xiaoting, the newly inaugurated president of the national seminary, only four trainee priests enrolled in 2015, which is a sharp drop from the 22 that enrolled in 2010.
Currently, there are only 556 trainee priests across China’s 10 major seminaries, so boosting applicant numbers is a high priority, said Bishop Yang.
The bishop also cited the challenges posed by a secular society and Beijing’s recent easing of one-child policy, as many new students are their parents’ only child.
“There is an overwhelming expectation that one’s child will continue the family line,” he added.
The shortage of priests has become so severe that in some dioceses, one priest serves more than 5,000 parishioners.
“The solution, I believe, lies in the elevation of lay people because our trainees mainly come from lay families,” said Yang, who is also vice president of the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China.
Zou said that at least 10 percent of his peers have left the seminary and, in recent years, several ordained priests in his diocese have also left the clergy due to family pressures.
“That’s why it takes six years of training at the seminary and at least one year as an intern in a diocese before one can be ordained. You need to be absolutely sure you are ready to go down that road,” he said.
Urbanization has resulted in a sharp rise in Catholics in urban areas. In 2013, there are at least six million Catholics in China and steadily rising, according the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
Yang said that most of China’s Catholics lived in rural areas before urbanization, but a growing number of young people are being attracted to the faith. Citing the diocese of Yulin in Shaanxi Province, where Yang still serves as a bishop, the number of followers of the diocese has almost doubled from less than 40,000 in 2000 to 70,000 by the end of 2014.
“It’s an indication that people are constantly seeking a better quality of life, and their efforts are increasingly focused on spirituality. People need support in their spiritual lives because their quest for a better life is no longer focused purely on material needs,” he said.
Changes in age and gender have also presented new challenges to seminaries, particularly in keeping up with developments in society and the changing needs of parishioners, Yang said.
In response, the seminary is considering the addition of new courses, including a wider coverage of fields such as psychology, social ethics and services, and management theory, in order to adapt to the needs of the younger flock.
“We must help parishioners to solve their puzzles from within, even though our own questions remain unanswered at times,” seminarian Meng Dongdong said in an interview with China Daily.
“For us, it is also a process of making distinctions to see if I am the right person for God and whether I still want to devote myself to the priesthood. So far, for me, the answer is still ‘yes.'”