Priest from China Conducts Spiritual Study

Rev. Peter Chen plans to share pastoral counseling research and expertise with his native China

By Magazine Staff  |  Photo by Nick Alexopulos, '03
Rev. Tianzhi Peter Chen

Growing up Catholic in China during the Cultural Revolution, Rev. Tianzhi Peter Chen, Ph.D. ’11, had to pray secretly with his family. Every night they closed the door and covered the window with a heavy curtain to keep the neighbors from hearing their prayers.

“During that time all the religions were suppressed. All the churches were closed down. My parents taught me the Our Father and Hail Mary just based on their memory.”

When Fr. Chen received his Ph.D. in Pastoral Counseling at Loyola’s Commencement in May, he took another step on a journey he began years earlier as his parents whispered Bible stories to their seven children beneath the light of an oil lamp. Quietly baptized “Peter” by his lay uncle, Fr. Chen was 13 before the Chinese government relaxed its policies related to religious practices. Then, for the first time, he was able to enter a church, make his confession, and receive the Eucharist.

When he answered his call to the priesthood, his diocese in China sent him to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore to study for his ordination. While there, Fr. Chen learned of Loyola’s pastoral counseling program. After returning to China to be ordained, he taught in seminaries and served as pastor in a parish where the previous pastor had been martyred.

As he was conducting workshops and retreats for religious men and women in China, Fr. Chen realized he needed more training to help them work through their psychological challenges.

His diocese supported his request to study pastoral counseling in the United States. When Fr. Chen selected a topic for his thesis, he chose to focus on spirituality in his homeland. He partnered with Ralph Piedmont, Ph.D., professor of pastoral counseling, who has created a scale to measure spirituality, the Assessment of Spirituality and Religious Sentiments. Fr. Chen translated the assessment into Chinese and administered it in China, where no empirical research in the field of psychology of religion has been done.

“During the process of validating the scale, I could also find out whether the concept of spirituality contained in this scale was universal, whether I could find the same concept in China as they found in the U.S.,” he said. “I also could study whether the Chinese people understand spirituality in the same way as Americans do.”

Defining Spirituality

To Piedmont’s delight, Fr. Chen’s results replicated those collected when the test has been translated into languages including Czech, Hungarian, Spanish, Tagalog, Persian, and Arabic and to people of varied faiths, such as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists.

“The scale has reliability and validity,” said Piedmont, who began research on this topic 15 years ago. The scale, which was developed based on research with people of varied faith backgrounds, focuses on commonality in spirituality, exploring, for example, how a person sees himself as part of the universe, finds fulfillment through prayer, and feels connected with others.

“There are many different definitions of spirituality, and most of those definitions are developed by the psychologists and theologians in the Western world,” Fr. Chen said. Piedmont’s scale appealed to Fr. Chen because it considered spirituality in a broader way.

The mere fact that the scale can be translated into other languages reveals the universal nature of spirituality, Piedmont said. “Language is in some senses a repository for a culture’s experiences over time; words formalize events and concepts that have been found to be important. The Eskimos have 18 words for snow. How many words do you think a Nigerian has for snow? None,” he said. “This reflects the different experiences of these two cultures. But when different cultures develop independently words to reflect the same concept, such concepts may reflect universal aspects of the human experience. That a single concept of spirituality is clearly found in both Chinese and English lexicons means that these two different cultures have come to experience and value the transcendent in similar ways.”

Across Cultures

Now that Fr. Chen has completed his thesis, he is translating it to submit it to Chinese journals as a scientific article. He is staying in the United States to get hands-on, clinical experience counseling American priests and other religious. Then he will return to teach his colleagues in China and help establish similar counseling programs. And he hopes to continue to do research and stay connected to his American colleagues.

“If we can do cross-cultural studies of spirituality or personality or well-being, that would be fantastic,” he said.

Read on for more.

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  • Posted by Pattie Likakis | August 3, 2011

    Very interesting approach. I am also a student of spirituality and the various religions. I see many commonalities. I believe that faith is the only answer to the problems we are facing in this world today. Faith gives people hope and rescues them from the pit of despair. The positive belief that things can and will be better and that there is indeed a power greater than ourselves who loves us.
    Thanks for your work in this area, Fr. Chen, and keep us posted.

  • Posted by Sheila Wheltle | August 4, 2011

    We are blessed to have Fr. Peter at St. Marks.

  • Posted by Bill Adams | April 2, 2012

    We have an Elephant in the closet in the diocese of Baltimore. Nobody is allowed to talk about the elephant in the closet. If you hint at the elephant or try to talk theologically about healing. You are considered, an Albatrose around the neck of the diocese. A few years ago. Fr Peter Chen came to Saint Marks, I saw him and discerned he was chinese and I said Ni Hao. Which is Chinese for hello. Fr Peter Chen Very humbly and quitely put his head down, as in a chinese bow. Fr Peter Chen is very quiet and Obedient. A few years before, When Fr Whately Came to the Dioeces, the dioecese tried to institute a program. I contacted Fr Whately with Questions and detailed overlay of how the parish had been doing over the last 20 years. Fr Whately went to work to try and work with the homeless and other projects very diligently and be a excellent pastor at saint marks.. Fr CHen has become part of church family. Recently his family has had health issues. HIs brother was hit by a car, his father had a heart attack. And Fr CHen has had difficulties traveling back and forth to china and as it was said, his former pastor was martyred. This is a common occurrence in Communist CHina. In 2008 I had two cancer surgeries while trying to discern myself Gods will in my life. I am helping take care of my mom. I wish somehow I could goto china and see the people in Fr CHens Village there struggles and help them rebuild. Currently Fr Chen is in CHina. He was supposed to come back to the US last week through way of Canada. But did not have proper travel papers to leave and come to Canada. I am not sure of Fr Chens Persona status in China. BUt I am Hopeful he will come to join us back at saint Marks. He usually tells us homilies based on his experience as a christian the best he understands as it relates at home, to people in his community. How they work and celebrate family. One week he tolds us about the forbidden city and how all the emperors passed of the forbidden city are gone and how that relates to the human experience. That we must all go and make our peace with God and the universe some day and leave behind our legacy.

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