After Mao’s death in 1976, public practice of religion was once again allowed. Nuns who had been in hiding began to reclaim their public religious life and revive groups founded before the revolution. Recruitment was strengthened in the 1990s, as was a re-shaping to a more communal life. New recruits, belonging to revived local religious groups, were given opportunities either by their own or other international congregations or sisters or priests to study in the United States and elsewhere. As the women returned, these newly educated sisters began to find their own “national voice,” and it was different from the West; not all they had learned fit life in China. However, as they brought new ways of thinking and doing things, not unexpectedly, tensions increased in relationships with priests and bishops who had not had the opportunity to study abroad.
Nevertheless, the nuns remain deeply engaged in parish and diocesan work, as the majority belong to diocesan-founded groups. They are considered diocesan servants, caring for children, people with disabilities and elderly people in the local church community. Their works are eclectic, at times requested by the government. A few groups have initiated their own ministries to the most marginalized, but these must be approved by the country’s religious affairs office.
Only a small percentage percent of the sisters’ time is spent in evangelization, according to Chambon. They are often caught between their political local contexts and the voice of the Vatican, which does not always understand the complexity of relationships of government and local church authority that they must navigate. They are questioned about their “works” and their “spiritualities” that are sometimes not seen as “fitting” into canonical categories, according to Chambon, the survey and conversations I’ve had with Chinese sisters.
They also struggle to survive economically, frequently receiving little or no compensation for their services, often left “faceless, nameless and voiceless,” Chambon said. This is true, even though as Chinese nationals, they hold a recognized place in the society, both by the government and the people of God. How can this be? How can commitment to the local church as companion servants with the priests or bishops who “together are (considered) the face of God,” he said, and as women who kept the church alive during the dangers of the revolution, go unrecognized monetarily?