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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Father Joseph, Loftus, C.M. Dublin, Ireland

by Mary Moran, Washington, D.C.

Mary: You’ve been a Vincentian priest now for over 30 years. You are noted particularly for serving as a missionary to China for nearly 25 years.  After the Vincentians had been out of China for a number of years, in 1994 your Vincentian Superior General appealed for volunteers for a new outreach to the Chinese people. You were part of that original group of volunteers and have ministered to the people of China since then.  Recently, working and studying in Rome. What inspired you originally to become a Vincentian priest?

Father Joseph: The charism of the Congregation of the Mission, despite the name, is not a missionary charism in the traditional sense, St Vincent dePaul was inspired to reach out to the unchurched of his day in his home country (France) .

My own vocation was inspired by the community of priests who taught me at secondary (high) school and I joined to live the life they modeled to me. As most Communities, they told me about our Mission in Africa, but the desire to go overseas as a Missionary, as say a Maryknoll priest might do,  was not part of my initial vocation.

In the Seminaire (our word for a novitiate) I discovered that the Irish Vincentians had run a parish in Beijing (the Dong Tang) and that the Vincentians had run extensive missions in China, I was fascinated by that story and became an amateur “China Watcher”, all that was possible in 1977.

Later, as China opened up my interest deepened, and I became progressively more associated with coordinated efforts among Irish Orders and Congregations which had missions in China. Then in 1993. I responded to the Vincentian Superior General's own initiative, and this began my formal links to the mission in China.

Mary: You are noted for celebrating the popular English-speaking Masses at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Beijing and serving the English-speaking community throughout Beijing with pastoral care for a number of years. Thus, many people from the United States travelling to Beijing, including Catholics working at the U.S. Embassy, the Canadian Embassy, and the Irish Embassy in Beijing will meet you at the cathedral. That’s how I first met you. I was impressed with the leadership and welcoming of your parishioners. You’ve done a commendable job of developing parish leaders and your Masses are packed! What are some of the most important insights you have acquired from being a priest in Beijing? 

Father Joseph: Pastoring the foreign community was a delight, and relatively easy. Unlike a regular pastor, the range of people was generally smaller, retirees or shut-ins were few, and ministry to the sick rare. Families were the norm, and by virtue of the complete absence of social pressure, all were in Church by choice, and thus very devout. I was constantly amazed and humbled by the degree to which families and, even more startling, singles, would go to make sure that they did not miss Mass. One also met people from a broad range of nationalities and that too added to the impression of belonging to a Catholic Church.

The second thing I learned as a priest was to interiorise my own Faith. My adult life to that point had been lived in a Catholic bubble, where patterns of behaviour were often governed by externals, the rhythm of the Seminary schedule or the demands of community life. Routines, even though willingly accepted, substituted for deliberate choice. In China, especially in the early years, the religious routines were gone, unless I created them myself from my own motivation. There was no community waiting for me; if I choose not to say Mass, I could. I discovered a will to do so that came from within, a Grace that  anchored me over the years when I had few external supports for lived priesthood to hold onto.

Finally I came to appreciate the faith of Chinese Catholics. Struggling with issues quite different from those I was familiar with, they showed a will to be Church, and get on with it. Liturgical niceties, interference from Rome, and, say, the role of women, take on a different hue in China. There, just having a church is a blessing, the attachment to the Holy See is liberation and the space for woman to exercise authority is greater inside the Church than in the surrounding society (especially in the countryside). They have been through the mill, and many aspects of faith and piety that I had lost touch with are alive and sustaining here. It required a complete readjustment of my priorities.

Mary: You have been given much recognition and credit for working with local charities throughout China to advise them on fundraising and organization management. In 2007, you set up an NGO to help small rural charities have access to the fundraising opportunities on the internet.  The intent is to help small charities into the world of online giving.  Could you provide an update on current activities of your work with internet fundraising for Catholic social justice programs?  Have you had any challenges with internet being blocked in China?

Father Joseph: The question rather overstates my contribution. However, I did come to the “scene” with an advantage: an skill in the use of the internet at a time when it was still not widely understood by Chinese Charities. Added to that was an appreciation that the local charities could not depend indefinitely on overseas grants. The way things have unfolded since, changes in local laws, increased wealth in China, technological advances and rise of the RMB (Chinese currency) have made me an accidental prophet after the fact.

BRICKS was founded on a principle that local charities should be responsible for their own fundraising and foreign donors should contribute to “cranking the pump” only. My Irish experience and the fact that St. Vincent dePaul, the founder of the community to which I belong, is the patron of organised charity helped.

The Irish charity sector is well established, and my own family have been involved since my childhood. My memories of days counting pennies from collections my mother organized on the kitchen table as well my experience of the effective networks of the various St. Vincent dePaul founded groups, did not prepare me for an environment where church personnel seemed willing not to do something unless the large grant first dropped from the sky!

If I contributed something in my time in China, it was an appreciation that 10 donations of 1 RMB, were, if anything, better that one grant of 10 RMB.  A second contribution may have been to propose an alternative to the deeply engrained perspective that projects should either start big or not at at all. I found many times that the response to many forms of local poverty was “First build a large building, then see how it might be used to address the issue”.  I tried to model an appreciation that incremental development was valid and more sustainable. I cannot claim that I was successful in this, but I did on occasion, give pause for thought.

My original BRICKS concept was initiated to give wings to those two principles and allow foreign donors assist in “building a Great Wall of Charity in China brick by brick”. It is winding down now and is being taken over by a local fundraising mechanism. This new concept is to create a domestically orientated crowdfunding platform with a twist.

The crowdfunding idea is by now well established in China, but most sites are orientated towards the relatively sophisticated urban based NGOs. For those charities on the wrong side of the urban/rural divide (a much bigger issue in China than in the West), access and self confidence use of these mechanisms is a challenge. (A Chinese website) offers both a platform for crowdfunding, and also training in how to manage an online campaign, basic accounting and so on. The hope is to give grass roots organizations the confidence to use the internet to connect with the ever more generous domestic donor, rather than create links to the generosity of international benefactors.

In this context, it is perhaps important to appreciate that the the “Great Firewall of China” is irreverent.  The internet in China is very sophisticated and for our purposes provides well developed mechanisms to access donors and make payments (In the latter case better than the West) .

A greater challenge is that registering grass roots charities (a sine qua non, to actually use the systems effectively) can be difficult, especially for rural and/or faith based organizations. I should add that the issues are not all to do with discrimination against religion.

Good in itself perhaps, state registration is clearing out the criminal element from the NGO world  (the sector has been something of a Wild West 'till now and the once bitten twice shy on-line donor is demanding more transparency), but it is a challenge in rural environments where the will to do good is not matched by professional management skills.

On line, mainly urban donors want accountability, yet grass root rural agencies can struggle with basic accounting and reporting skills. This will remain an issue for some time and not easily addressed. Another factor that the state is in competition with charities to BE SEEN as the provider of services in a socialist system. When any grass roots organization actually deliver on care for  elderly, for example, then the socialist state (or at least its local incarnation) is embarrassed, as it presumes itself to be the only such provider necessary.

One way to kill the competition is to make the regulations too difficult for unsophisticated local groups to comply. Exiled from the world of registered (and thus bone fide) charities they can seem “fly by night” or worse. Unregistered groups can still do good, but only informally in a very local setting. Further, they are ineligible to use the internet based fundraising structures, and it is difficult to become big enough, irrespective of local need, to challenge state alternatives.

Mary: Much has been written and discussed about China’s future. You have expressed concern about the challenges of fast moving urbanization of China, the migration of people from the rural areas to the cities, upon the people of China.  What impact is this urbanization having on Catholicism in China?

Father Joseph: My sense is that the range of challenges presented by this issue is overwhelming for the Chinese Church which is only scratching the surface of a phenomenon that is changing society all around it. Rather than comment on the range of the situation which is well covered by others. I will confine my remarks to one area.

The genius of the Catholic Church structure is that, though loose and inefficient, is extraordinarily elastic, an element of that elasticity is that there is space for figures to emerge in response to particularity needs at particular times. Think St Dominic or St Francis, or even, dare I say it St. Vincent dePaul.

The structures, the religious communities, these figures set up, compliment the diocesan structure, and function as the NGO's of Catholicism. They have an nimble, adaptable quality as it were, and are an essential part of the “Body of Christ”. They allow the Catholic Church to adapt to new situations without breaking in the process.

However, the Catholic Church in China is restrained by circumstances into a very rigid framework and has been allowed to exist publicly only without its essential compliment, religious life. Internal division, the weakness of super-diocesan structures (e.g., the Bishops Conference)  and the needs of the exiting, largely rural church militates against a vision capable of seeing beyond the diocesan boundary.

Religious communities, though they ought to exist precisely to provide that vision, are forced into the straight jacket of the diocesan structure thus limiting their “nimbleness” at a time of extraordinary need for flexibility. There are efforts being made by individuals and dioceses, but in the face of the scale of the social change, they are piecemeal and insufficient.

Mary: Eliminating poverty in China by 2020 is a top policy priority. At the recently concluded 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China, the leadership committed itself to eliminate poverty by 2020. The Catholic Church has spearheaded many social justice program initiatives, and you have spent much time thinking through effective programs for the elderly.[ Refer to Father Loftus' article Walk before you can run” The Catholic Church and the Care of China’s Elderly]. How do you see Catholic social justice programs working in China this coming year?

Father Joseph: I am somewhat concerned about the capacities of the Catholic Church in China to be actors in social justice, going forward. Existing programs are offered usually by religious sisters in diocesan communities, and their vocations are in decline. Usually chronically underfunded already, they are ill prepared for the transformation to lay-led structures that have already happened in the West.

The rapid transformation of society, and the increasingly regulated environment demands very rapid professionalising of services. These would be challenging anywhere, but for a church still coming out of the catacombs the pressures are enormous.  More philosophically perhaps, we have come to value advocacy as an integral part of social justice. The state severely limits all advocacy and confines charities to the strict provision of services to those in need, refusing permission to advocate for change. Can one really “do” social justice without advocacy?

Mary: Visas for travel between the United States and China are now valid for up to10 years under the visa policies of both countries. I, myself, have a Chinese visa valid for 10 years, so I plan to do more travel to China. Priests, seminarians, and nuns have benefited from this expanded visa policy on behalf of both countries.  You have served as a resource person for numerous religious personnel coming to China from the United States and coming to the United States from China.  What do you see as some of the main outcomes of these exchanges?

Father Joseph: The real value of these visits is that they allow people to see the realities of life in China. When one engages with real people, living the Christian lives in the concrete, it is a good counterpoint to the images that are created by the media, which tend to  heighten contrasts for effect.

The challenge, of course is to actually convey the realities of life for such a diverse country during the course of a single visit. Sometimes the logistics defeat the purpose. For example, the vibrancy of Catholic life is in the rural areas, yet visiting rural China is a real difficulty. Logistics; distance, board and lodging aside, official permissions etc, set aside, having got there, cultural barriers can not easily be overcome in a day, and the outcome of a short visit to the Catholic village can be underwhelming.

Further, for those who come wishing to meet the “Underground groups", unless well briefed in advance, risk doing more harm than good. There is almost no risk to the tourist, but to the Underground Catholic an encounter with the foreigner may well cause significant problems later on.

Mary: You give frequent presentations, training, and retreats on a wide variety of religious issues and topics. One popular event in Beijing is called the Bookworm Festival. You recently gave a sell out presentation on “Trends in Spirituality in Modern China” alongside a Buddhist priest, that caught my attention. Could you give the highlights of this presentation?

Father Joseph: The encounter was one of those events which were interesting by accident rather than design. I had never intended to speak in the highbrow event as it was billed having a more mundane topic broadly covered by my observations on urbanisation above.

However two small things stay with me. I had wondered what to wear lest my Buddhist companion arrive in flowing robes and I a tee shirt. I don't think I was driven by an adversarial spirit but anxious to “put the Catholic forward” so to speak. I more or less decided to wear the suit and clerical collar as a 'safe' solution.

My opposite number did one better, he contacted me to find out what I was going to wear so that there would be no embarrassment. Although I cannot say I had been kept awake nights by the sartorial challenge, I was impressed and humbled by his willingness to reach out to me, something that had not even crossed my mind to do. A lesson in Christian humility from a Buddhist monk!

A second consequence of the meeting has been an ongoing encounter with a young man who is on a spiritual journey. He had not realised that Christianity had a meditation tradition and asked if I would “take him on” as it were. Some ground rules had to be negotiated, I'm not a “we are all going to God, as we understand him/her by our own paths” kind of priest, but working out a game plan was not hard. there has followed a serious of conversations in which this man's sincere search for inner integrity has impressed me greatly. Baptism is probably a long shot, but I remain challenged by his sincere willingness, despite no Christian Faith to stay on a path, and resist self deception. Would that I were so!

Mary: Would you want to predict when the Vatican and Beijing may sign an agreement? Do you have any insights you would like to share?

Father Joseph: I am very hopeful that Vatican China talks will solve the issue of how the Church might function in China, but I think it is naive to imagine that such a solution will be easily accepted to the communities which have developed, often with great sacrifice, around that issue in the last 60 years within the Church in China. I expand on that concern in a recently written observation here .

Mary: Thank you so much for shedding light on a world of the Catholic Church, that many people are not familiar with.

Background: Fr. Joseph Loftus was born and raised in Ireland, and has been an Irish Vincentian priest for 34 years. He spent 24 years in China.. studied Business Administration at the China Europe International Business School, and speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese.


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