Religion in China

Meet the Chinese Catholic priest with a big heart and a knack for solving problems with his ears

King of the blog Father Paul Han Qinping has been helping people find their way to a happier life for over a decade

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 11:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 11:30am

In 2014, a young Chinese man was on the verge of suicide. In his darkest hour he read an online blog written by a Catholic priest, and it saved his life.

Around the same time, a husband and wife believed their marriage was over. In a last-ditch effort to save it they turned to a holy man they knew and asked if they could talk through their problems with him. He agreed. They did. And their marriage lived on.

The man of the cloth in both those stories is Father Paul Han Qinping. Born into a Catholic family in Wuwei, western China’s Gansu province, the 48-year-old knows he does not possess any special powers. But over the years he has come to realise that through his writing, his sermons and, most of all, by listening to people, he can at least sometimes help them to find the solutions they need to life’s biggest problems.

Pope ‘loves China’, Vatican official says on trip to Beijing

“It was when the young man left me a message, saying that after reading my blog he decided not to kill himself that I realised that what I wrote could actually help to save lives,” he told the South China Morning Post.

“He got in touch with me later via [messaging service] WeChat and told me about his suffering and pain. After pouring his heart out he gradually began to feel better about himself, and he now lives a very healthy life.”

Currently living in northern China’s Hebei province, Han writes two blogs, one since 2010 and the other since 2011. He said he uses them to “express my thoughts about life, faith and religion”, and also as a forum for people to discuss whatever topics they choose.

He is clearly doing something right. In the past six or seven years they have been viewed a combined 4.5 million times.

Not that Han spends his whole life online, of course. Although he is not attached to a particular parish, he regularly conducts masses as a locum, he said.

“During church services, I often see people crying,” he said. “Maybe it’s because they are touched by the things I say, or perhaps they just need to release their anxieties. Whatever it is, it encourages me to continue my religious work, as I can see that it is meaningful.”

Can the Catholic faith serve politics? That’s what China wants

As a “public minister” he said he frequently meets up with people, both individually and in groups, to chat about whatever is on their minds. That was how he came to be sitting beside a young husband and wife who desperately wanted to save their marriage.

“We met in a quiet coffee shop, and I started by asking them to share their feelings and thoughts about one another. Then I just listened,” he said.

“After several hours of communicating it eventually dawned on them – what was missing from their everyday lives. They had stopped talking to one another.

“It was nothing I said. But because I was there they felt relaxed enough to open their hearts. And when they did, they found the answers they were looking for,” he said.

Brought up in a devout Catholic family, Han said he realised at quite a young age that he wanted to be a priest. After completing a bachelor’s degree in the decidedly non-religious subject of forestry management, he turned his attention to matters theological, and in 1996 headed to the United States, where he studied philosophy at Divine Word College – an undergraduate seminary in Iowa – and then theology at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois.

Chinese Catholics wary of suggested reform to government-backed church

In 2006 he took his holy orders in Chicago and later the same year returned to China as an ordained priest ready to begin a life of service.

“I couldn’t wait to get back,” he said. “Religious life in mainland China was so weak at that time. There were no church schools, no high-level research institutions, and there was a huge gap between the Church and society at large. I wanted to change that.”

For decades in China, not least during the Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedong from 1966 to 1976, Christianity had been suppressed. And although things have been improving in recent years, the situation remains far from perfect, Han said.

“China is still not very tolerant of religion, especially Christianity,” he said. “Some people still see it as a tool used by Western governments to infiltrate Chinese society.”

He said he first became aware of the suspicion people had of priests when he joined the relief effort in Sichuan in 2008, following the magnitude 7.9 earthquake that razed huge areas of Wenchuan.

At the time he was working for a charitable organisation in Hebei, which was the first NGO to be set up by Chinese Catholics and approved by the secular powers that be in Beijing.

The secret lives of Chinese missionaries in northern Iraq

Although he mostly just helped with the supply of materials such as shelters, food and clothing, he said he was regarded with much suspicion by the local officials.

“As soon as they found out I was a Catholic priest, they assumed I must have an ulterior motive. I kept telling them that I wasn’t there to preach or to recruit people for the Church. I just wanted to help out, but their unease never went away,” he said.

Despite the sceptics, Han said that he and his colleagues from Jinde would never give up on their charity work. Just two years after the Wenchuan disaster they travelled to the Yushu Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Qinghai province to help in the aftermath of another massive quake, and a year later worked in Fenghuang county in Hunan after it was hit by a massive flood.

These days, when he is not writing his blog, doing charity work or doling out pastoral care to the local community, Han can often be found at the Hebei Major Seminary, where he teaches the history of the Church.

And the first thing he teaches the young men who are training to become priests? “That religion is not static. Rather, it evolves with time,” he said.

Will funerals of the future have ceremonies led by robot priests?

“Looking back over the history of the Catholic Church, you can see that changes were constantly being made as they were needed,” he said. “Blindly conforming to the past can only make Catholics less lively and up to date.”

One of the biggest questions facing the Church today, and an issue he has written about many times in his blog, is whether priests should be allowed to marry, Han said.

“Around the world, the number of men training to become priests is falling. Allowing them to marry could help change that. It would be great news.”

He said that many Chinese people were not even aware that Catholic priests were not allowed to marry.

“Wherever I go, people ask me where my wife and children are. It just shows how little they know about religion.”

If priests were allowed to marry – something he said he believes is now inevitable – it would not only stop people inquiring about his missing family, but also “breathe new life into the Church”.

Not that everyone agrees with his progressive views, he said.

“For some people, the old regulations should not be challenged, as doing so would be to show disrespect to the Church’s traditions and teachings.”

Keeping the faith with Chinese characteristics: state-run Catholicism turns 60

Thankfully, Han said he believes that Pope Francis, the man currently at the head of the global Catholic Church of about 1.2 billion followers, is the perfect man for the job.

“The Pope is a person with a big heart and a lot of wisdom,” he said. “He is the right person to lead the Church through the many challenges and obstacles it faces.”

Despite the prejudice and bias he has experienced from people with limited understanding of religion, Han said he was optimistic about his and the Church’s future.

“Chinese society is changing, and it’s changing for the better,” he said.

“More and more young Chinese can now access information about religion, and that in turn inspires them to look at it more closely.

“There is a lot of hope,” he said.