Sr. Sofia Xiao and Fr Dan Troy. Photo: Fr Dan Troy
A recent opportunity to meet with Sr. Sofia Xiao in the city of Shijiazhuang was somewhat unexpected. Two weeks earlier, she had been in Rome, making steady progress through the third year of a four-year course, her studies being sponsored by a Columban scholarship. She is one of several people over the past 20 years who have received a Columban scholarship, part of our ongoing efforts to build up academic standards and skills among Chinese priests, sisters and lay people. Her unforeseen return to China was due to her mother becoming seriously ill and Sr. Sofia feeling the need to assist her family in caring for their mother at this difficult time.
As we sat in a simple hotel near her mother’s hospital, Sr. Sofia’s bright personality and kindness revealed how she would naturally be so concerned for her mother at this time. Breaking the flow of her studies has been difficult, but it was done with the approval of her academic advisor in Rome and her congregational leader in China.
Sr. Sofia is studying for an MA in psychology and spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Having previously reached the required level of Italian language ability, she has applied herself in a dedicated way to the demanding course of studies.
As the conversation unfolded, she smiled as she described the Sundays that she saw Pope Francis appearing at his balcony window in Rome to lead midday prayers. She also spoke in detail about her studies. These studies place a strong emphasis on practical experience and she is already accompanying people on a one-to-one basis in their personal journeys as they look seriously at their lives and seek healing in areas where difficulties have arisen.
An admirable feature of her studies is an ongoing focus on Sr. Sofia’s personal reflection and self-awareness. Twice a week, she meets with her supervisor to be attentive to what is happening at an emotional level within herself as she accompanies people who face personal challenges. My surprise at the depth of self-reflection needed in such a course of studies was a reminder for me of the need for all of us to give adequate attention to how our surrounding environment continually affects our lives, this also being the setting where God can meet each of us and lead us to greater freedom. For Sr. Sofia, this rigorous approach to self-awareness during her studies will ensure that she will have a more informed understanding of what will be happening within herself as she accompanies others in ministry in the years ahead.
When she finishes her studies in Rome, her expertise will be greatly appreciated in China by people in the Church and the wider society. Many people in China seek to live meaningful lives rooted in their Christian faith but are trying to do so in a country that has galloped through immense changes over the past thirty years.
Later as we ate lunch in a small restaurant, the unity of Sr. Sofia’s family stood out as a beacon of hope in their time of need. Gathered at the table with us were her older brother and his wife. As we enjoyed the food and chatted, I noticed that Sr. Sofia’s sister-in-law referred a few times to her mother. It took me a few moments to realise that she was actually referring to her mother-in-law, but preferring to speak of her as her own mother. I complimented her on this unique and precious view of family.
In recent years Sr. Sofia has faced the challenges of learning a new language, the adjustments needed to live in a different culture and then the demanding academic requirements of specialised studies. She is now facing the unexpected and painful need to accompany her mother in a time of deep vulnerability for her family. However, with the deep faith and unity that is a natural part of many Catholic families in China, we can trust fully in how God will accompany them through this experience of the Cross and eventually bring them to a place of peace. Likewise, we can trust that it will eventually lead Sr. Sofia to bring all of her experience to the various ministry settings that await her in the Church and the wider society in China, a setting where God will also bring light out of darkness for many people.
Columban Fr Dan Troy lives and works in Wuhan, China.
- Read more from the current Columban eBulletin.
Watch Fr Dan Troy talks about the Columban outreach to people with special needs in China