Priest from China Conducts Spiritual Study

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

Page 1 of 2
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.


From Fr. Peter Chen:

On pastoral counseling in the U.S. vs. in China: “There are some differences, but in my experience the major parts are the same. Culturally there are some different issues, but what I am finding here is also very useful in China, too.”

“In the summer of 2008, when the earthquake happened in China, I went to the earthquake zone as a volunteer, as a professional counselor.” He contacted the Chinese Psychological Association. “In my email I mentioned even though I am a priest, I am going to serve as a professional counselor, as a volunteer.”

“So we worked together with some other Chinese counselors, and I realized I could do a much better job than them. For example, during the earthquake, many children died. The building was poorly constructed, the earthquake happened in the afternoon and the school buildings collapsed and many children died. And you also know in China since the early 1980s, they began to have the one-child policy, so many parents they lost their only child.”

“They also have some anger issues toward the school or (because of) the construction of the building. And the Chinese government was very sensitive because of the angry emotion, so they tried not to touch this population. I noticed that actually this population is most in need, so I volunteered to go work with them—whereas other clinicians they tried to avoid them—and I worked with about 13 or 14 couples. So in the beginning they have a lot of anger. I was just here to listen and accept them.”

“When I first came, a colleague of mine reminded me not to mention religion. And in a case like this, in the beginning I just tried to use the psychological skills to help them. And I had the feeling that we were in a dead end. There was no way out. There was despair, hopeless, and (people were) suicidal. So actually by coincidence we began to talk about religion.”

“It was awkward silence. I don’t know what to say next. Then the wife she asked me, ‘Do you have any children?’ I said, ‘I don’t have.’ She said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because I’m not married.’ She asked, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because I am a priest.’ They were very surprised I was a Catholic priest. And I said, ‘I believe your son has not died, he’s still alive. Meaning, you cannot see him, you cannot touch him, but you are going to see him again. This is my faith. This is my belief.’ And, as I said this to them, I can see that what I said touched them. And then it was like a turn, and the session began to change, and they became more and more positive about their future, their hope. That was a very successful experience I had.”

“At a certain point in the session we have to talk about death because death is the reality we cannot avoid. The other psychological skill usually does not talk about this topic.”

One of the couples was in their 50s and had lost their 18-year-old son. “A colleague of mine told me that this couple adopted a child, a son.”

As a diocesan priest in China, Fr. Chen has taught in the Holy Spirit Seminary and the National Seminary in Beijing. When he returns to China, he expects to return to teaching in seminaries.

Before he returns to China, Fr. Chen wants to acquire some hands-on training. He has visited Saint Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., and Saint John Vienney Center in Downingtown, Pa. “Even though I graduate from this program, I lack clinical experiences, especially working with priests. They are all helping priests,” says Fr. Chen, who is interested in both the experience and learning how the programs are organized. “China needs some programs like this.”

“As I was finishing my coursework, deciding what topic I needed to choose for my dissertation, I truly struggled (with) what topic I should choose. And as I was thinking about this, first I thought about the need, and the opportunity that I had with this program. So far in China, no empirical research has been done in the field of psychology of religion. So I thought also I want to do some research about, within the Church too.”

“Another important factor is how do you define spirituality? There are many different definitions of spirituality, and most of those definitions are developed by the psychologists and theologians in the Western world, and those concepts are based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is very different from the Oriental world.”

“Piedmont, he used a different approach to develop his concept of spirituality. He used the empirical approach so he first found some experts from various faith traditions like Catholic, various Protestant denominations, Judaism, Muslim, and Buddhism. Those experts they asked them to write one sentence which can express their concept of spirituality. They put all of the items together to analyze what are the common.”

“I choose this empirical study because this is a scientific method. I plan to translate my dissertation into Chinese and have it published. The Chinese government (has) a negative view toward religion and spirituality. So I want to show a scientific approach.”

“What I plan to do is try to translate it into Chinese and send it to a Chinese journal and see whether they would accept it. Usually they control everything. But I submit it as a scientific article and not a religious article.”

“There are about 1,000 people in my village, and about 300 are Catholics, and we are all from the same clan. Because my parents and siblings are all devoted Catholics, they (were) very supportive for me to be a priest.”

“As we were doing work together, my mother, or sometimes my father, taught us the Bible stories, just from their memory. Like the stories about Abraham or Joseph, those stories I heard from my mother or father. Because my mother she did not have a chance to go to school, my mother cannot write, cannot read, so what she learned was from her parents.”

“I think the first time I saw a priest and received Confession and Communion, I was 13. It was 1981 or 82.”

“My father’s brother baptized me. Chinese Catholics when they are baptized usually are given a Christian name. So in addition to the Christian name we also have a Chinese name. Peter is my Christian name.”

“This is the part of human weakness. When you don’t have something, you cherish it. When you have it, you forgot. You don’t cherish it.”

Of all the adjustments he had to make when he first came to the United States, “The language was the most difficult of all. I remember I really struggled when I first came here in 1994.”

When his diocesan leaders asked him to go to the United States, “suddenly I wanted to come too. For as I have mentioned several times in my homilies, for a Chinese person, especially in those times, to go to America, it’s like go to Heaven. So even though I know it will be difficult with the language and the culture, I still want to come. I never have regretted it.”

“In China they also have some seminaries, but the quality of education is not so good. So some seminarians come here to study and then we go back to the seminary to teach.”

Fr. Chen lived in Ignatius House with members of Loyola’s Jesuit Community from 2004-07. “It was a very unique experience,” he said. When he finished the master’s program in 2007, another Jesuit needed to take his space in Ignatius House. Rev. James Salmon, S.J., suggested that he contact the pastor of St. Mark’s parish in Catonsville, Md., where Fr. Chen has lived ever since.

“At St. Mark’s, everything is very well-organized. And the parishioners are involved in activities. In China, the parish I went, the previous pastor he was martyred in 1947, and then the church building was used as a factory building, then as storage. The church was reopened in 1989. And since it opened some priests from the Cathedral go to say Mass, stay there for a couple days, and go back. So I was the first pastor to stay there since 1947.”

From Ralph Piedmont, Ph.D.:

“In general, the psychology of religion has always been the bastard child of the field. Psychologists have a very skeptical view of religion. From a psychologist’s perspective, religion is a monkey on people’s backs that gives them guilt and holds them down.”

“Religion doesn’t like psychology because it’s too self-involved. You go with people’s feelings in the absence of any moral structure. That’s on the philosophical level. On the empirical level, how do you measure spirituality?”

“Most of them (these assessment instruments) have a mainline Protestant orientation. If you’re Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, this is going to work very well. But if you’re Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu, or part of the other 4 ½ billion people on the planet, these scales aren’t going to work for you.”

“Both areas (psychology and religion) are interested in understanding human nature: who we are and who we are called to be.”

“I wanted to come up with definitions of religion and spirituality that were not theologically determined but were psychologically oriented. Yet I wanted to have constructs with theological meaning as well.”

“If you look through history and across cultures, religion is everywhere. It impacts everything about us. And it’s unique to the human species.”

“There’s a five-factor model of personality. My goal was to show that spirituality represents a sixth factor.”

“Some people think that I can’t do that. There are some conservative Christians who don’t believe that my spirituality scale is not about spirituality because it doesn’t mention Jesus. What I have captured is universal. They are very interested in capturing something that reflects and affirms their theological orientation.”

“We look at it empirically. We show yes, we are measuring something. What Peter is measuring in China, we’ve shown is the same thing we’re measuring in the United States. Spirituality is not some dubious, unmeasurable reality, but does have a psychological foundation that is of importance to psychologists.”

“Some of the research that we’ve been doing has been taking it to the next level. Spirituality is everywhere. So what? Well, what we try to ask is the key question: Does spirituality represent an intrinsic part of who I am that serves as a cause of my behavior, or is it merely an outcome of some more basic psychological mechanisms?” So far, our research shows that spirituality serves as a causal input to our mental world. A positive sense of spirituality can have a very facilitative effect on our sense of purpose, resiliency, and life satisfaction.

“Does understanding spirituality tell me something about people that’s not redundant with established personality constructs? Yes. Our research has come a long way in showing that spirituality does indeed represent something non-redundant with existing personality dimensions. The physical and social sciences are recognizing more and more the quality of data that’s coming out.”

“These concepts are universal. Spiritual constructs are found in both self and observer ratings. They are found across cultures and languages and some research has begun to show that these variables have both neurological and genetic bases. So are you going to say that they are not important for understanding human behavior? You can’t. The data are there showing otherwise.”

Bookmark and Share


  • 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.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment