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By John Wang Zongshe
When I was baptized my godfather chose the name John in honor of St John the Baptist. I was born into a traditional Catholic family and brought up in Hebei Province, four hours by train southwest of Beijing. Our village was one-third Catholic. When I was young there was no television in our home so I asked my father to tell me Bible stories and that is where my faith journey began. As a primary school student, each Saturday I would play with my friends in our village but also made time for one hour’s adoration before the Blessed Sacrament in the local church. It was the custom in our village to have exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on Saturday afternoon and the Catholics would spend some time in prayer in the church. I feel that my personal relationship with God has its origin in those hours before the Blessed Sacrament.
On completing high school my father advised me to get into business and make money so, aged 20, I took a train to Dong Ning, a town in Heilongjiang Province two days by train north of Beijing, not far from the Russian border. There I met a Catholic family who inspired me by the way they lived their faith. The couple were leaders and evangelizers in the local community where there was no resident priest. The family offered bed and board to about 20 rural children who wanted to attend primary school. Their example prompted me to rethink the direction of my life.
There I first met Columban Fr Gerry Neylon when he went up to check on the possibility of the Columbans supporting the community in some way. Father Gerry, who works in China, arrived accompanied by Maria Zhang Yaru, the daughter of the couple I came to know. In 1994 she received a Columban scholarship that was supervised by Fr Michael ‘Mickey’ Martin, an Irish Columban, then parish priest of Malate, Manila, to study in the Philippines. At the time she was unable to use the scholarship, but was able to go later through an invitation from a Chinese priest in the Philippines and she stayed there for eight years. She completed a master’s degree in education and did volunteer work in Malate parish where she met Fr Mickey. While in Manila she made friends with the other young Chinese women who were there on the Columban scholarship program. There she also met Fr Warren Kinne, an Australian Columban who had worked before in Mindanao, who was Central Lay Missionary Coordinator for the Columbans at that time, and would later be working in China himself when Maria returned home. On returning to China, thanks to her multiple Columban contacts, she soon met Father Gerry and took him to Dong Ning.
I shared with Maria my interest in working in evangelization and she urged me to go to the Philippines to study as preparation for being a catechist. I took her advice and studied religious education and philosophy in Manila, where I also worked as a volunteer in Malate parish and met Fr Mickey Martin. I returned to China to work with Maria in evangelisation and soon after Fr Kevin O’Neill, who had received my contact details from Father Mickey, came to see me. The rest is history. I completed a one-year English study program in Wuhan during which I took a look at the Columbans and they took a look at me. If both of us like what we saw, I would go to begin the Columban formation program in the Philippines.
At this point I would like to say something about four objections to being a missionary.
First, some might think that by becoming a missionary one cannot live out one’s deepest desire, which might be to become a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, or something else. However, I don’t think this is true as in my case my dream was to be a doctor, but clearly I have not followed that path in life. However, as a missionary I can take care of people and so still fulfill the basic desire of my dream.
Second, some say that by becoming a missionary one gives up one’s freedom. However, that is not so as real freedom is to seek the truth. In fact, by being a missionary I experience even greater freedom to do precisely that, because a missionary is primarily a seeker and a communicator of truth discovered through the exercise of reason inspired by faith.
Third, when I was working I strove for money, power and material goods, but discovered that such things are limited and hollow. It is easy to lose oneself searching for such things. My purpose in life is to discover myself, a truth that came to me when I was about 24 years of age and which I continue to work at. Now that I’m on the path towards being a missionary I’m discovering inner peace and harmony and who I am as a person. For me, to be a missionary is to search for God and the eternal, a quest that never ceased to engage me even during my pursuit of material success.
Fourth, some might say the life of a missionary is very lonely. However, missionaries belong to a community that is like a family. We also have our family and relatives, friends, hobbies and interests. God is with us, so how could we possibly be lonely? In today’s world youth don’t have the chance to be alone and quiet. There is little chance to quieten our spirit in order to discern what is most important in life for us.