Today I just read a blog news regarding vocations in Chinese seminaries. Indeed, although still kind of abundant, from a historical perspective they are diminishing.. and fast. This is one of the reasons behind the closure of some diocesan seminaries, even regional ones, in China. The article posed the question if Chinese priests will one day go to countries traditionally considered "Catholic" to proclaim the gospel; well, indeed they are already doing that, although mostly, though not exclusively, for overseas Chinese catholic communities.
This made me thought about another issue. How comfortable and acquainted are we to see and express the church and its witnessing mission as a "priestly" thing! Nowadays there is a lot of talk about "heteropatriarchy" as a concept to understand the inherited bias surrounding gender relations, society, culture and economy... even societies as a whole; a bias that is so conspicuous that we usually are not able to feel it, and this is what makes it dangerous as it becomes a normalized and normative cosmovision. Maybe in the church we should start to put a name to this vicious understanding that has crippled our church throughout history, especially recent one. "Priestarchy", an understanding of Church and mission as priestly centered and of salvation as priestly mediated-only: Out of the priest neither church nor salvation is available or attainable.
This biased and crooked vision has become so "normal" to us that we do not find many problems in accepting it... even though it put Christ on the cross: a "no-one" from no-good-Galilea that dared to open salvation and to offer a path to God outside the normative religious institutions of Israel, priesthood and else, outside of the Temple and the synagogue, in the midst of the fields and the roads, "in Spirit and Truth", a path from and to a God that looked to the inner heart instead of the laws and regulations, a God who welcomed anyone coming to him with a sincere heart... no matter the situation from where the person has started the walk.
If we leave "priestarchy" behind, then we will discover that Chinese are already being missionaries around the world. Many lay people, some religious sisters and a few religious men and priests are already nurturing and spawning the gospel throughout the four corners of the Earth.
These days in Japan I am among one of these groups. I am assisting the Chinese community of Yokohama-Kawasaki, near Tokyo, a community served by our brother JX who is now in a Formation Course in Spain. We can say that apart from Macao's St. Lawrence Parish, this is the biggest Chinese Christian community we are serving and attending as Claretians in a steady basis. Aboriginal Ministry in Taiwan (another big community apart from Macao's St. Lawrence) is not Chinese, and other parishes we serve are not as numerous as this one.
As the community, majority of Fujian origin, is mostly composed of migrant blue collar workers and students, attendance to the different activities of the community fluctuates a lot. They go when time and work allow it, and they keep some of the formation and community life activities flowing through thanks to Internet. They have started a center called "Claret Center" as a venue to attend the cultural and evangelizing needs of the group. The center has been brought forth by lay people themselves. It is a place where Chinese can organize activities to keep alive and cultivate their Chinese roots and where they can hold formation activities or read Catholic literature in Chinese.
Indeed, this Chinese Catholic overseas community is a God-given opportunity for the Claretians in East Asia to help devise an evangelization program that empowers them and allows them to leave "priestarchy" behind, becoming a community that moves and progresses in their faith life with or without the presence of the priest. If there are priests available, blessed be the Lord, if not, they still can bless the Lord without any problem. This has been one of the main treats of Claretian Mission throughout history; we do not simply "make mission", we promote missionaries, we empower others, men and women, to go and bring the Gospel, to lead communities, to be apostles.
In China there is a lack of priests, and so some local churches are starting to organize themselves within this new paradigm. The Christian community is led and empowered through the mission work of lay leaders who are assisted by the priests when needed... Indeed it is not something new as the Church of America first and then of Africa have shown us.
We do not need priests to start, develop and lead the local Catholic communities; for that we need missionaries, men and women burning in apostolic zeal. Still, we love, enjoy, use and cherish priesthood whenever availble, as it is a grace-gift of God to the Church. I think that this should be the right attitude, and this was the normal understanding of Christian life and ministry of the Early Church, a time when most communities were led by committed christians, men and women, without any priestly rank... and probably this open, unbiased, fluid and quite adaptive structure was also a key factor in the fast spreading of Christianity at its dawn.