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By Joseph Li Jiangang
My village of 800 residents is one hundred percent Catholic. It is in Shaanxi Province, 16 hours by train southwest of Beijing. My Christian name was chosen by our parish priest when he baptized me. As a young boy I always went to church with my grandmother even though I did not really like to. I preferred to be playing with my friends. On one occasion, during my primary school years, I went to see an open-air movie at Mass time.
The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary worked in our village and ran a medical clinic. In junior high school, one Sister got us together for religious education during our summer holidays, and at the age of eleven I began to know more about God. I was born after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) so much religious practice had ceased. I used to sit at the back of the church when I went alone, but when I joined the youth group we would sit at the front. As a youth I went of my own free will to church.
At that time, I was timid and afraid to read in public. I became an altar server and at twelve I was leading the congregation in half an hour of prayers before Mass. I liked that and on returning from school I’d drop my bag and head for the church.
When I was sixteen my father’s cousin, who is a priest, wanted me to go to the minor seminary. So I went, but not because I wanted to. My father had the idea that since he had two sons, offering one to God was a good thing. I was only there for two months when the government shut the seminary as it was run by the underground part of the Church. I returned home, and my father told me to just wait and see what might happen. In the meantime, I enrolled at the local junior high school.
After middle school I got a job, as my family was poor. I worked for one year and then returned to the minor seminary, which had reopened. I felt that the community atmosphere of the seminary helped draw me closer to God. During this time I lived with a Catholic family from Monday to Friday and on weekends returned to the seminary. Since the family I stayed with knew the principal of the local high school, which wasn’t in the residential zone of my family, I was able to study there, paying lower fees.
At the age of 23, in 2005, I began to think about being a missionary. I used to help out in the Church during summer with catechetical programs for children. That was when I realized that many people in other villages were not Catholic, and I remembered that Jesus had said that the Gospel is for everyone. I noticed that some of the youth who said they had no faith also talked about being lonely and having feelings of emptiness in their lives. By this time I was 24 and was already in the seminary.
I left the local seminary but began to rediscover my vocation and a diocesan priest who had studied in Ireland for four years on a Columban scholarship connected me with Australian Columban Fr Kevin O’Neill. I found a job after leaving the seminary and was living in Xi’an where I became involved with the local Church and youth group.
When I try to answer the question ‘Why be a missionary?’ I do my best to answer out of my experience in China. Three points occur to me. First, I grew up Catholic and want to share my faith both in China and overseas. Second, it is good that the Church offers opportunities to help youth come together and share their search for meaning in life. My experience in China prompts me to think that possibly youth in other parts of the world are also searching for meaning in their lives. Third, there should be space in the life of the Church for all, not just Christians; there should be a welcome for all. Here in China I have learned the importance of dealing with people who are not Christians. We need to reach out to them too, and also to those in other parts of the world who struggle to find meaning for their lives and have had little chance to hear the Christian message.