The SMB has already completed over 40 Pastoral Workshops in Communicative Theology for Chinese Pastoral Agents. The course from 4 to 14 September this year was a new experience, because it was full of different and first-time variables for us.
Rita Chen describes it for us:
- For the first time, we invited priests, nuns and lay leaders from China to Switzerland
- For the first time we invited members of the underground church and the official church from the same diocese
- For the first time a course took place in a new environment, in the “Stella Matutina” in Hertenstein
- For the first time, priests, sisters and lay leaders participated in the same workshop
- For the first time the participants were so different in education, age and pastoral experience in the church
That’s why I kept hearing worried voices before the class started:
- Will the participants receive their visas?
- If nobody or too few participants come at the beginning of the course, what then?
- If we do not know how many are coming, how should we prepare?
- What should we do if they have visa and plane ticket but are stopped on departure?
- Will they have difficulties on their return to China?
- If a few days before the start of the course the participants suddenly cannot leave, are there any alternatives?
Despite all these questions, my heart was very calm and confident. I knew that our course is in the hands of God. If God wants it, the difficulties will turn into blessing and grace!
The entire process of conducting this course was indeed a test of trust and patience for our three-person team (Rita, Laurenz and Peter). In retrospect, however, He let us know the value and meaning of the SMB project of continuing education of Chinese pastoral workers.
Personally, I am convinced that this course has achieved the very purpose of our support program: namely, to create space for dialogue between the two groups of the Chinese Church (official and underground), that is probably God’s dream for the Church in China!
We can also understand the conflicts and differences between the two groups. In 2007 we started this training program. At that time we could not imagine that priests, sisters and lay leaders of churches from both groups could attend a ten-day course together; that they would be able to face the Church’s concerns and missionary work together, without compulsion and stress, in a relaxed atmosphere, for the first time directly face-to-face, sharing their own heart’s desires and mutual thoughts.
One year ago, on September 22, 2018, the Holy See and representatives of the Chinese government signed an interim agreement on the future appointment of Chinese Catholic bishops. At that time, we were in China as an SMB travel group. I was convinced that the time has now come to make our contribution to the dialogue between the two groups through workshops.
During the actual planning of the course 2019, I contacted both groups (underground and official church). I realized that I had to give all the information in duplicate because they barely communicated with each other in China because of bitter past experiences. Even today, in many places there is a big gap between these two groups, not merely because it was “uncomfortable” to contact each other. Nor does the local government want the two groups to work together. Today, one year after the agreement, the underground church simply does not exist, according to the government.
Church affiliation in China resembles a family-like structure. This resulted in a distanced interaction between the two camps, which slowly changed during the course: until the third day, we had exchanges in separate small groups. Then I had two representatives of each group confront each other in a fish pool debate. The theme of the dialogue between the two sides was: where does our diocese stand in the context of today’s Chinese Church? Where is the path going?
At that time, I saw that all participants had an opportunity for dialogue and the desire to communicate, while at the same time fear and restraint still dominated. They were literally afraid to expose themselves or hurt others. Even though the two groups had different views and misunderstandings and almost came to quarrels and mutual condemnation, all still expressed their real thoughts and past injuries.
The sincere exchange between the representatives of both sides made it possible for all participants to express their own former fears. Many votes came in tears and with apologies, so that not only was I profoundly touched as facilitator and observer, but I also admired their courage and was amazed at the power of God. After the sincere exchange between the two groups, the atmosphere of the workshop became more harmonious. The ice was broken – everyone returned to a common home to live together, to share, to learn, to make a pilgrimage and to celebrate the Eucharist together.
At the Bethlehem Cemetery in Immensee, I saw all the participants kneel before the memorial stones of the first Chinese missionaries and touch them. They asked these missionaries to be guardian angels of reconciliation of the two groups and pleaded for intercession for reconciliation. While I still saw that the two groups often met separately, there was no more mistrust between them, allowing everyone their need for freedom. I also know that the two groups discussed how to get other parishioners to move forward on their way to dialogue after returning to their diocese.
On the way to the airport, everyone expressed their gratitude to the missionary society, grateful for the experience of faith they may only be able to have once in their lifetime. They said that they want to be a kind of Bethlehem missionaries, and that they will continue to share that missionary spirit in China. Their protestations are almost the same as those of all participants in our courses in the past: they said that Bethlehem missionaries in Switzerland did not have any new members. “But we are all the offspring of Bethlehem missionaries in China!”.
Rita Chen Baumann