KONSTANCIN-JEZIORNA, Poland — Catholic female religious orders have expanded rapidly in China over the past decade, but are now facing restrictions and a decrease in vocations, said religious sisters from various parts of China.
"Religious sisters are highly important here -- they do most of the missionary work in parishes, as well as providing educational and medical help," said Sister Teresa Yu, a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. "But the government is now demanding licenses, so conditions have become more difficult. Some of our clinics and homes have had to close, and we fear more curbs will follow, while people are less willing to see their children enter religious orders because of the (government's) one-child policy."
Sister Yu and other Chinese sisters spoke to Catholic News Service in mid-September, during a European Catholic China colloquium, co-organized by Germany's Catholic China-Zentrum, which fosters encounter and exchanges between cultures and religions in the West and in China, and the Polish Catholic Church's Sinicum institute. The colloquium brought together Catholics from China, clergy and scholars from the United States and a dozen European countries.
Sister Yu told Catholic News Service that nuns run catechism and Bible study classes in most Chinese parishes, as well as help the sick, homeless and elderly, but were frequently impeded by "unnecessary restrictions."
Another nun told CNS that religious sisters were allowed to run summer schools for children in her native Hebei province, but were barred from similar work in other provinces.
"The extent of religious freedom very much depends on the region -- while we can generally conduct activity inside church premises, we face problems as soon as we step outside," said Holy Spirit Sister Hyacinta Zhang Yunling.
"But we're also lacking recruits and novices, especially in rural communities where economic conditions are hardest. While some Catholic families don't fully understand the church's teaching on the religious life, their Chinese neighbors can also be unhappy when a local woman wishes to become a nun," she said.
China's Catholic Church, estimated unofficially at 14 million members, has around 100 dioceses with 104 bishops, of whom 35 are not recognized as bishops by the Chinese government. The country is also home to around 4,000 priests, with 860 seminarians.
Although male religious orders are banned in China, diocesan female orders are permitted under strict control and currently number more than 5,000 members, roughly the same as before the 1949 communist revolution.
Church sources said China's religious orders of women run 120 clinics, 30 homes for the aged, 20 kindergartens, six orphanages and 14 family care centers, as well as units for drug rehabilitation, AIDS and leprosy.
Sister Yu said women's congregations had "sprouted like bamboo in the springtime" since official policies were liberalized in the 1980s and had helped confront the "psychological emptiness" felt by many Chinese.
However, their material dependence on local dioceses caused difficulties, Sister Yu said, while disputes between Catholics and China's regime-approved Catholic Patriotic Association had "enormously reduced the power of evangelization."
"Most congregations just woke up and started walking, their feet on thin ground, having only a vague understanding of their charisms, unable to make ends meet, and without any formal clear-cut model to follow," she said. "For people who've professed religious vows, such a China with its rapidly developing economy, its dominance of material values, its hedonistic mentality, consumerism and vast spiritual emptiness brings a great deal of tension and trial."
Sister Yu said continuing restrictions on religious life posed particular problems for younger nuns, who longed to be allowed to wear their habits in public without being apprehended by police. She added that older nuns needed the fellowship of convent communities, but were usually forced to live separately in parishes with private families.
"Although ordinary people generally respect the work of Catholic nuns, we still have very few opportunities to get out, evangelize and interact with society," she told CNS.
"Legally, we can do nothing without a license, and if we try to act outside church confines, we'll always be taking a risk. So we're hoping and praying for religious freedom -- so that, through the consecrated life, we can provide a light of holiness in today's challenging environment of secularism and materialism."
Fears of new religious curbs have grown since local officials began tearing down crosses in Zhejiang province in 2014. Catholic sources said several churches had also been bulldozed and numerous Christians, including Protestant pastors, arrested for opposing the moves.
Father Paul Han of the Shijiazhuang-based Jinde Charities told CNS religious orders could be particularly vulnerable in a new crackdown since many nuns lacked proper training and formation. He said some Chinese dioceses and religious orders and church organizations outside the country were working to combat this.