When Zou Yunlong decided to enter a seminary and train as a priest, he was fully aware of the price he would have to pay: No wife, no children, living－and possibly dying－alone, and being ready to serve his parishioners at any hour of the day for his entire life.
"It's a process of constant self-reflection to see if I am fit for the priesthood," Zou said, referring to his life as a seminarian. "Even today, my family is still trying to change my mind. But I am as committed as ever," said the 32-year-old student at the National Seminary of the Catholic Church in Beijing.
When he completes his studies, Zou will be assigned to a church in Guizhou province, but a shortage of priests means he will have to travel frequently between different parishes to provide religious services.
Statistics provided by the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China show that the country's 6 million-plus Catholics are served by 3,316 priests, plus 5,622 nuns from 106 orders.
In recent years, the number of Catholic worshippers in China has risen steadily. In response, the national seminary and six other establishments across the country have been charged with widening the talent pool for the priesthood.
The problem is a lack of applicants. In 2010, Zou was one of 22 new trainee priests enrolled at the national seminary, but this year the number of new recruits has fallen to just four. Moreover, there are only 556 trainee priests at the nation's 10 major seminaries, so boosting applicant numbers is a high priority for Bishop John Baptist Yang Xiaoting, the seminary's newly inaugurated president.
Yang said the main factors responsible for the decline in applications are the challenges posed by a secular society and the recently relaxed family planning policy, which has resulted in a large number of families with just one child.
He said every student displays an extraordinary amount of courage when they enter a seminary: "This is especially true in China, when many new students are their parents' only child, and there is an overwhelming expectation that one's child will continue the family line."
The shortage of priests is so severe in some dioceses that 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.
A difficult choice
In 2008, when seminarian Zou first investigated Christianity, he thought he would identify contradictions that would help him to discredit the doctrine. "I was curious to know why so many people had chosen to believe in this religion, but I needed to know about it before I could debunk it," he said.
However, as he learned more about the church, he became fascinated. "I discovered that it is a belief rather than a superstition, and there is a reason it has been around for thousands of years," he said.
The toughest part of entering the priesthood involves coming to terms with the fact that you will never father children, he said. "It also means your parents will lose the person they should rely on in the future," he said, adding that even the most devout Catholic families raise objections when they learn that their only child has opted to join the priesthood.
The challenges are constant because joining the clergy means life is spent resisting worldly temptations, especially money and sex. "Human flesh is vulnerable, and we are human beings, after all," he said.
Zou estimated that at least 10 per cent of his peers have abandoned their dreams of entering the priesthood and have left the seminary, and in recent years, several ordained priests in his diocese have also left the clergy, mainly because of parental and 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.
Seminarians have their own ways of resisting temptation. "The best way is to stay close to God, to make the relationship as close as possible. Also, living as part of a group is helpful," he said.
Staying fully focused can also help. "Put all your time and energy into your work so there will be no time for other thoughts. And stay away from novels and TV programs," he said.
At the entrance of the seminary's teaching building, a large photo of Pope Francis watches over the students entering and leaving the classrooms.
Yang said maintaining the high standard of training at the seminary will be crucial to ensure success. "We need to make sure we are offering training that matches international standards," he said.
One of the solutions has been to raise the number of permanent lecturers from overseas. The seminary has more than 20 foreign guest professors who provide voluntary teaching services every year, and almost half of the permanent faculty members obtained doctorates overseas.
Since its foundation in 1983, the seminary has produced 330 priests, eight of whom have become bishops. The latest is Joseph Zhang Yinlin, coadjutor bishop of Anyang diocese in Henan province, whose appointment in August was recognised by both the Chinese government and the Vatican.
"We need to keep in mind that we should try to localize our training methods. We have a different political system and a different culture in China and those facts will inevitably be reflected at our seminary," he said. "However, the foundations of the faith will never change, and neither will our constancy with Catholicism."
Zou said some of the courses have proved too difficult for some of the students, many of whom have only been educated to high school level.
As a graduate of Guizhou Minzu University, Zou is one of the few students in his class with a college education, but even he has struggled. "I completely gave up on English and Latin. They are too difficult for me. I tell myself that it's okay because I have no plans to go abroad. I will be content to stay in my diocese and work as a priest," he said, although he acknowledged that he will have to master basic Latin to recite the Mass.
Other courses, such as philosophy and theology, have also proved difficult because the textbooks have mostly been translated from Western theological works, and the terminologies are difficult to grasp, he said.
Compared with a college education, the courses at the seminary are far less systematic, he said. "At college, we were allowed to learn step by step. But here, a course that was originally planned for a whole semester has to be completed within one month because the guest lecturers only stay for a very short time," he said.
Also, his time has to be split between solitary reflection and life within the group. "The spiritual life of the group is important because it enables you to develop your mind and accept a priestly lifestyle," he said.
Urbanization has resulted in a rapid rise in the number of Catholics in urban areas. In 2013, Wang Zuo'an, head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, told Study Times that there were at least 6 million Catholics in China, and the number was rising.
Yang said most of the country's Catholics lived in the rural areas before urbanization, but a growing number of young people in cities were being attracted. For example, the number of followers in the diocese of Yulin, Shaanxi province, where Yang still serves as bishop, has almost doubled since the turn of the century, from less than 40,000 in 2000 to almost 70,000 by the end of last year.
"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.
The changes in age and gender have also presented the seminaries with new challenges, especially keeping up with developments in society and with parishioners' changing needs, he said.
Yang said the seminary is mulling new courses, including wider coverage of fields such as psychology, social ethics and services, and management theory to adapt to the needs of younger worshippers.
Despite the challenges, seminarian Meng Dongdong said the clergy's most-important task is the same now as it has always been. "We must help parishioners to solve their puzzles from within, even though our own questions remain unanswered at times," he said.
"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'. "
The Education of a Catholic priest
・ First year topics include: History of Chinese and Western philosophy; Sexual Psychology; Sacred Music; Basic Latin; English; Logics; and Spirituality and Epistemology.
・ Second Year: Metaphysics; Ethics; Spiritual Life; The History of Foreign Religious Literature; and Ontology.
・ Third Year: The Old Testament; Introduction to the New Testament; Introduction to Theology; Medieval Church History; Systematical Theology; the History of Spirituality; and Developmental Psychology.
・ Fourth Year: Synoptic Gospels; Biblical Hermeneutics; Abnormal Psychology; and Introduction to the Sacrament.
・ Fifth Year: The Liturgical Year; The Theory of the Holy Trinity; Statutes; The Works of St. John; The Epistles of St. Paul; and Catholic Theory.
・ Sixth Year: The Spiritual Teachings of St. Paul; Catholic Social Doctrine; Holy Rituals; and Diocese Management.
Source: The National Seminary of the Catholic Church in China
First Person:Meng Donghui
'The priesthood was like a voice repeating in my mind'
Meng Dongdong, a fifth-year student at the National Seminary of the Catholic Church in China.
I grew up in a house just a few steps away from the church in Taiyuan, Shanxi province.
The Catholic faith in my family can be traced back as far as my great-grandparents. The close proximity of the church meant the local priest lived and ate at our house, and that's how my admiration for the priesthood started. I just saw the priest as a member of my family. As a child, I would follow him around the parish and watch as he helped the parishioners. I also took part in church rituals. I just enjoyed being with the priest, and I learned a lot from him about how to become a better person.
The thought of ordination crossed my mind several times when I was growing up, but the choice may have seemed irresponsible, because I am the only boy in my family and my decision meant my older sister would have to take care of my parents in the future. When I told my parents of my intention, they objected strongly and told me to forget it.
However, when I graduated from college in 2010, the priesthood was like a voice repeating in my mind. Even though I had a job, I was unable to concentrate. Later I got a job closer to my home, but the situation didn't improve. I realised it was time to make up my mind.
I couldn't wait until I got married and then make a decision. That would only cause great regrets for me and even greater pain for my family. I was aware that I had to make my intentions clearer than ever, because all my efforts to talk to my family had been in vain. I resigned from my job without consulting my parents. It was very hard for them, but they finally agreed.
When I arrived at the seminary, I hoped to devote myself fully to studying and praying, but I found there was still a gap between what I could do and what I wanted to do. I wanted to be close to the saints, and I hoped to read more and pray as often as possible, but I found I didn't have enough energy or time.
In my previous life I could only read and memorize the few books that were available, but in the seminary, I am allowed to formulate my own thoughts about theology and the Catholic Church. That has proved very helpful in my reflections about God and my own faith.