2.1. A Congregations with Historical Roots: The Little Sisters of Mary
Many Chinese religious congregations who operate in contemporary China have in some extent been founded during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when a large number of Western Catholic nuns came to China to support missionary work (Li 2015
). Arriving mostly from France, but also from Italy, Germany, or the United States, these missionary nuns were committed to social services such as education of children, orphanage, and medical care (Young 2013
). Wearing a distinct uniform indicating their religious status, these foreign nuns were in close collaboration with priests and bishops to support pre-established missions as well as to generate new missionary opportunities. Soon, they invited young Chinese women to join their apostolate and religious commitment. They opened their congregation to the natives or established new ones for them. Thus, this period witnessed a broad Catholic effort to generate numerous indigenous congregations across the Chinese world, such as the Chinese Sisters of the Precious Blood, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, The Providence Sister Catechists, The Society of Helpers, and so on (Bradshaw 1981
; Tiedemann 2010b
; Li 2015, p. 121
; Chu 2016
In northern China, the Little Sisters of Mary10
traces their history back to the early twentieth century. In a Catholic territory overseen by French Bishops, young Chinese women interested in religious life were invited to become zhennü
(beatas). From the early 1910s, they could pronounce their vows in the hands of the bishop and then be sent two by two to serve local communities. They would offer medical care for the sick, as well as education for children. Through countless and flexible involvements, these Chinese beatas were crucial in the development of the local Church and in implementing a holistic Christian care for the broader population. Besides serving within nascent missions and parishes, small groups of them opened asylums for deprived elderly people, others created an orphanage, and some ran a printing house. In a context of continuous civil war fueled by the successive disruptions of the Boxer rebellion, conflicts between warrior lords, and the Japanese invasion, the social welfare induced by these nuns answered to a political and social vacuum where most traditional well-fare institutions were under crisis. With an increasing number of young women joining them, the nuns were officially recognized by the Holy See in the early 1930s as a religious congregation. By the 1940s, the new congregation, the Little Sisters of Mary, counted over one hundred nuns.
However, with the collapse of the Japanese Empire followed by the growing Communist power, these Catholic women decided that young members of their congregation should leave the city and migrate towards the South. At the end of the 1940s, about sixty of them left, and later, a few regathered abroad to recreate a congregation inspired by their experience in northern China. Meanwhile, nuns who have remained in Northern China soon had to leave their pastoral service and return to their family. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the congregation like every other constituted religious body disappeared and most nuns returned to the life of a home-based beata. Yet, today’s nuns insist on how those nuns never stopped praying and serving, even during the Cultural Revolution. The Little Sisters of Mary explained that despite the political context, nuns continued to help and work generously, testifying wherever they were about the evangelical values. By doing so, each of them was maintaining the spirit of their congregation alive—a spirit that does not lay in any single way of life.
With Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in 1978–1979, Catholic communities and institutions were gradually able to re-emerge. The Church could reappear in public. In 1989, the local bishop and a few lay people of the place where the Little Sisters f Mary are now based decided to support the visible recreation of the congregation. One dozen elderly nuns who were living in the region were helped to gather again and restart their public and collective service of the Church. Soon, more than 20 young women joined them to become the new generation of the Little Sisters of Mary. In 1992, a second group of 39 young postulants was accepted while only three elderly nuns were still alive. Three years later, twenty-four of these new postulants pronounced their vows. Today, the congregation counts about 94 nuns, three novices, and no postulant. New vocations are becoming rare, so the size of the congregation might soon decrease. Nonetheless, with their grey robe and white veil, the Little Sisters of Mary are well-known in the region. Their Mother House is constantly visited by all kinds of people from the city and surrounding Catholic communities.
With the constant growth of the congregation, the Little Sister of Mary had to provide training to new members and define their own requirements.11
After a few months as a postulant and two years as a novice, a new member can take temporary vows. Between five and seven years later, she can take perpetual vows. During the early stage of this training, each candidate joins pastoral activities with an older nun to embrace the religious mission of the congregation. They also attend specific training programs in accounting, nursing, acupuncture, foot massage, etc. If a nun demonstrates specific abilities, the congregation might ask her to pursue additional training in theology, biblical studies, education, medical care, and so on. Thus, the congregation has mobilized national and international connections, such as Catholic priests and nuns who regularly circulate across China, in order to identify relevant schools and ways to afford tuitions (Leung and Wittberg 2004
). Today, sixteen Little Sisters of Mary have been abroad for a Master or a Ph.D. program (France, Italy, Philippines, Taiwan, and the USA).12
Those women have brought back their international experience that they continue to share with the rest of their community. In addition to enlarging the professional expertise of the congregation, their experience abroad also allows the nuns to question their local ecclesial culture. For instance, they do not hesitate to describe what some of the nuns did abroad during religious education courses, or what they saw during religious ceremonies, to suggest changes within the parish they serve.
By 2008, the growth of the congregation and the multiple commitments of the Little Sisters have allowed them to gather enough funding from China and abroad to rebuild a modern and large Mother House.13
Since the Chinese law has allowed them to recover land properties owned before the Cultural Revolution, the nuns erected an impressive and well-maintained building in the center of the city, ten minutes away from the cathedral. At the entrance of this building, a large statue of the Virgin Mary welcomes the visitor, and boards on the walls explain the history of the congregation, the ancient role of the beatas, and the current services of the nuns.
The Mother House not only provides visibility and stability to the congregation; it also offers space for an elderly home ran by the nuns. The home welcomes more than fifty elderly people, Catholics and non-Catholics, accompanied by four nuns and five lay employees. This new apostolate is partially encouraged by the state which is outsourcing expensive social welfare to religious groups. Yet, if the Little Sisters of Mary like many other congregations have thrown themselves into this kind of social service, their involvement remains marked with parsimony and prudence. They do not want to monopolize all their human and financial resources for a single social priority that has been defined by others and that may jeopardize their religious commitment. As several of them told us: “A nun is more than a nurse or a care provider”. Nonetheless, some nuns discreetly provide medical care to people with HIV and to nearby homeless people. Although those two populations tend to be stigmatized by the state, local officials turn blind eyes on the support they receive from the nuns. By diversifying their social involvement and taking it out of their Mother House, nuns silently assert their own way to define and help people in need. This multidirectional social engagement illustrates once again what scholars have called the back-and-forth dynamic of cooperation and negotiation between Chinese Christians and state actors (Koesel et al. 2019
; Madsen 2019a
). Nuns do not simply respond to social needs defined by the state but carefully discern where and how to invest their energy without ignoring stigmatized populations.
In one aisle of the Mother House, there is also a spiritual center where the Little Sisters of Mary organize various retreats and training for lay Catholics. The facilities (dormitories, kitchen, classrooms) of the Mother House are large enough to accommodate a few dozen participants each time. The spiritual center offers courses in Holy Scriptures, human and spiritual development, but also formation about married life and parenting skills, as well as training programs for young Christians, spiritual counselors, and catechists. The nuns also offer a spiritual retreat to groups or individuals. It is worth noticing that participants of those formations and retreats also include people from Protestant Churches, and nuns sometimes invite Protestant ministers to contribute to their training programs. Consequently, their spiritual center is to some extent a site of ecumenical encounter. But the retreats and training it offers also contrast with the traditional Chinese Catholic piety that was primarily based on the daily repetition of prayers and on the regular attendance of mass and confession. Through their retreat center, nuns not only provide a new approach to spiritual life that echoes socio-religious transformations of their wealthy city but also becomes a resource of spiritual expertise. Becoming more than the servants of local parishes, the Little Sisters of Mary explain that through their retreat center, they continue the long-standing commitment to prayer that many home-based beatas have embraced. Today, nuns who live at the Mother House gather in the chapel several times per day for the mass and the Liturgies of the Hours. Visitors and retreatants are welcomed to join. Furthermore, every day and night, nuns take turns to maintain a perpetual adoration of the Holy Communion. This specific form of worship that implies human resources and stability was initiated in 2004 to respond to the demand of a generous benefactor. Fifteen years later, this perpetual adoration is the source of great pride for the entire community.
However, the Little Sisters of Mary consider evangelization as their priority and primary charism. Therefore, 46 nuns do not work and live within the Mother House but within a diocesan parish or in a nearby diocese. Alone or with other nuns, they oversee most parish’ activities, teach catechism, schedule rosaries, and help the choir. During Chinese New Year, they can take up to fourteen days to visit their family and stay with relatives. Yet, spending most of the year with parishioners, Chinese nuns notice that it is often lay people who introduce non-believers to Christ. Increasingly educated and socially connected, lay people evangelize and indirectly remind the nuns how their specific contribution to the Church is nothing predetermined and self-evident.
To support their various commitments and their needs in adapting their evangelizing skills, the Little Sisters of Mary gather twice a year at the Mother House, once for a one-week spiritual retreat, and once for a one-week training. The content and organization of these meetings are supervised by the Superior and her Council members. Once every four years, the congregation also goes through a General Chapter. All the nuns elect 30 delegates who gather one entire week at the Mother House to discuss the congregation’s orientations and to elect a Mother Superior and four council members. The five of them can be re-elected once. Then, they must return to regular religious life for at least one term.
For the Little Sisters of Mary, like for most Chinese congregations contacted during this research, the financial sustainability of the congregation is a matter of concern and recurrent debate. To what extent a nun can devote her time to non-profitable activities that may deploy evangelical values but threaten the financial viability of her congregation and its capacity to give on the long term? Nuns serving in a parish usually receive a stipend around 1000 RMB (US$
But it can vary across the region. The amount is usually given by the parish to the congregation itself. Then, each nun can ask the Mother House for the money she personally needs. Nuns say that they almost always receive the amount for which they ask. The other major income of the congregation is from small shops built on the congregation property along the street and rented out.15
Yet, in 2018, the city ordered an urban cleaning and street remodeling that destroyed half of them. Thus, the congregation is always looking for new donations and source of financial autonomy. Some nuns are studying accounting and may follow the example of other congregations where a significant proportion of the community works in accounting for secular corporations. Yet, the Little Sisters of Mary discuss whether this option that opens new economic, professional, and networking opportunities threaten the generous and disinterested dimension of their religious life. Nonetheless, nuns know that while the amount of money circulating within Chinese Catholic networks is constantly and significantly growing, lay people still prefer to donate for the construction of a new and visible building than for the functioning of a religious congregation. Chinese nuns cannot simply rely on the new wealth of lay Catholics, but they must be able to support themselves.
For most congregations, their major financial concern is to afford medical insurance for every single nun. The Little Sisters of Mary explain that it would cost them more than one million US$ (seven million RMB) to cover arrears and pay annual fees for the whole community. Since all of them are still under 60-year-old, they are mostly healthy and 86 of them do not have any insurance. But they worry about their future. Amid this dilemma, the diocese has recently agreed to cover one-third of their retirement pension. Yet, the congregation would have to cover the rest, and the question of their medical insurance remains unsolved.
In conclusion, the Little Sisters of Mary give an opportunity to see how Chinese religious congregations are a specific kind of Catholic organization. They are diocesan entities which identify with and value the model of missionaries and beatas who generated them. They use their example to define and justify their current position in the Church and their broader society. Most of those diocesan congregations are actually smaller16
, less educated, and less resourceful than the Little Sisters of Mary. They do not belong to broader religious orders with a national or international network. Although Chinese nuns may cultivate informal relations among congregations and with non-Chinese religious orders, their congregations belong to and depend on their diocese only. It is in this territorial framework imposed by the state and not contested by ecclesial authorities that they have to define their religious identity and sustain their material life. If they are quite autonomous in defining their missions and priorities, the way to support and finance them remains a constant challenge. Therefore, reflecting on a history of change that combines the model of the consecrated virgins and the example of missionary congregations, Chinese nuns cultivate and justify a multidirectional apostolate. They do not simply reproduce what the beatas and early missionaries did but design their own type of social involvement and Church service. Unlike most worldwide Catholic congregations, Chinese congregations do not limit their spiritual and apostolic charism to a single function (parish service, medical care, prayer) but constantly diversify the scope of their action. Similarly, they do not impose a strict community life on each other. Many members live alone or with other nuns in a parish, an apartment, or another related site. Yet, contemporary Chinese nuns tend to gather more and more and live within a single place, a hive of activity, instead of being scattered across vast territories. This type of religious life with its on-going spatial and functional reconfiguration puzzles international observers. However, it allows Chinese nuns to interact with various people without critically depending on a single space, income, and authority.
Finally, it is worth noticing the increasing tensions between nuns and diocese priests. During the Maoist period, they both shared the same banishment and bitter life. However, with the reform period, the public return of Catholic institutions, and the gigantic socio-economic transformation of the country, priests and nuns have increasingly different opportunities and challenges. As we saw with the Little Sisters of Mary, nuns can access some higher education programs, and through community life, they share their professional and abroad experience. By contrast, the training of diocesan priests is usually focused on theological and liturgical issues while being closely monitored by the state. It is harder for them to go abroad. And once ordained, they little benefit from communal learning. Therefore, there is an increasing gap in education between Chinese nuns and diocesan priests. Then, in the parish life, priests have usually to spend a large portion of their time in meetings and training with state officials while nuns monitor daily issues and spend more time with parishioners. In the eyes of many parishioners, the priest remains a figure of authority, almost the incarnation of Jesus Christ, while the nun is supposedly uneducated and the servant of the community. Thus, their pastoral experience and vision tend to diverge, and tensions between priests and nuns multiple. Like elsewhere in the Catholic world, Chinese nuns tend to resist male institutional authority and imposed models of self-sacrifice (Brock 2010
). Yet, if a disagreement between a Chinese priest and a nun becomes too important, the priest will usually request from the Superior of the congregation to transfer the sister elsewhere. Thus, Chinese nuns tend to avoid open conflicts and look for other means of action.
2.2. A Post-Maoist Congregation with Contemplative Efforts: The Sisters of the Immaculate Conception
To further unfold and nuance our understanding of Chinese religious congregations, it is worth exploring another community that has a shorter history and different priorities. On the Eastern coast of China, the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception are a recent unregistered community which counts 42 nuns and four novices. They mostly operate in a large township located one hour away from the provincial capital. In this developing region, economical opportunities are fewer than in the wealthy city of the Little Sisters of Mary, and divisions between official and unofficial Catholics are sharper.
This congregation came to life in the early 1980s. Responding to the interest of several young women, the local underground bishop invited two senior nuns from Shanghai to come and create a new local congregation. Soon, the relationship between the two nuns and the young postulants became complicated and the senior nuns left. Thus, the first postulants who pronounced their vows became also the founders of a new community. With a strong character and an extensive local network, the young nuns attracted new vocations. During the 1990s, regularly up-coming postulants allowed the community to grow slowly but steadily. After a short training within the apartment-convent, new postulants would be paired with a senior nun and go two by two to serve local communities. Together, they provided religious education to children, helped with the organization of the mass and other sacraments, and visited sick people to pray for them. Thus, helping local parishes has been their most consistent service. However, lay people are now better trained and often able to gather more funds and connections than underground nuns can. Therefore, their contribution to local parishes is losing ground and only a fourth of them are still serving them full-time.
In the early 2000s, local Catholics gave the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception a house in a large township and the nuns transformed it into their Mother House. Nearby, they opened a home to welcome individuals with a physical and/or mental disability. A few years later, they also established an old age home. In this coastal region marked by massive emigration, mutating society, and economic competition, traditional family and village structures are not a safety net anymore. Thus, vulnerable people find themselves left behind. Moved by these changing social conditions, the nuns have overcome their lack of training and resources and opened small structures that can provide support to people in need. Over the years, the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception have partially reoriented their time and effort toward these new forms of social service.
In this changing context, the question of their formation has become increasingly central. How to support, orient, and shape the young women who want to join the congregation? What are the guiding principles to train them? Through a few international connections and the support of foreign missionaries, some Sisters of the Immaculate Conception went to study abroad. With the discovery of a foreign culture, the experience of another local Catholic Church, and a firm academic and theological training, the young congregation enlarges its practice and understanding of Christian spirituality and gradually reorients its priorities. Indeed, many of the young nuns demonstrate an interest for a more radical and intense contemplative life through which they can deepen their union with God. Consequently, the congregation has re-enforced the contemplative dimension of its community life by increasing the time spent together to pray, but also the number of spiritual retreats and training offered to lay people. As with the Little Sisters of Mary, the nuns of Eastern China take turns to perform perpetual adoration. Today, the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception seek to reach out to students and young couples in search of a deeper spiritual training. Yet, they maintain their strong connections with the local Church and several nuns continue to serve the surrounding parishes.
Amid these transformations, the current novices shed light on the evolving identity of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. Four novices may not seem much but compared to the rapid decline of religious vocations in China, and the total absence of vocation among the Fujianese beatas, the presence of four novices within a rather small congregation demonstrate its attractiveness. The four of them are between 26 and 32-year old. All but one of the four have a university diploma showing that they had a rather deep secular experience outside of Catholic circles before joining religious life. During individual interviews, they also explain that they have kept their Catholic identity secret—or at least private—for years. One even said that she lost it for a few years. And most of them had a romantic but not fulfilling experience before joining the congregation.
Indeed, these young women grew up in a developing China where starvation and the lack of economic opportunities did not exist. Instead, competition among numerous options and rapid social change have defined their coming of age. Today, novices intend to take distance from surrounding hyper-consumerism of their generation. They do not worry about their material needs and the sustainability of their lifestyle. For them, “God will provide!”. Longing for poverty and dispossession, their motivations are in sharp contrast with the values of mainstream contemporary Chinese society.
When it comes to envisioning religious life, the four novices aspire for a balance between silent and individual adoration, community prayer, and personal growth through community life. What they are longing for is seen as emerging through prayer and community life rather than through parish life and worldly apostolate. Clearly, they differ from senior nuns who trained themselves in relation to local parishes. Even though they often demonstrate real affection and empathy for local Catholics and people in need, the young novices do not consider leaving their community and serving full-time surrounding parishes or Church services. Instead, the novices and their instructors perceive their religious vocation as becoming a praying and benevolent adviser of Catholic communities rooted in a contemplative relationship with God. Therefore, they study psychology to better answer the spiritual needs of those who come to them. But their effort to accommodate contemplative life with apostolate reveals that there is no contemplative community in mainland China today. All Chinese congregations are mainly oriented toward apostolic life (Charbonnier 2014
). Like in many places across Asia where monasteries and contemplative communities are rare, Chinese Catholic women looking for contemplative life must negotiate their aspiration within the structures they find.17
If the older nuns strongly support the contemplative aspirations of the younger ones, the congregation continues to serve local parishes, elderly people, and disabled people. Like the nuns of northern China, the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception cultivate a multidimensional involvement within their local Church and do not restrict themselves to a single charism, source of income, and identity. Ten of them, two by two, live in a nearby city and serve local parishes. The rest live at the Mother House from where a few sisters supervise the nearby home for disabled people and the old-age home. Interviews suggest that local underground Catholics appreciate their apostolate and respect their consecrated life. But when the bishop and his priests gather large funds for a new project, very little is left for the nuns. Often, new constructions do not even include an apartment for them, as a reminder that their position in the Church is nothing given and granted. And like the Little Sisters of Mary, the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception demonstrate anxiety about their future medical safety and some frustration with the lack of clerical support for their contemplative life.