- A path oriented to the future requires awareness of the roots of dialogue. For this reason, allow me to share with you a testimony nourished by many years of contact with the China dossier.
- At the beginning of 1982, a few months after my return to Rome from the Apostolic Nunciature in Argentina, I was called to take an interest in the China Desk, given that the minute-writer had been appointed Nuncio. It was a particularly interesting time: the Cultural Revolution had ended a few years earlier, and the “bamboo curtain” had in a certain sense been raised. The Holy See was literally submerged with messages from Bishops and priests written in simple, correct Latin. It was information concerning the life of the Dioceses and the various painful problems they had had to face in regard to the episcopal consecrations that had taken place in those years. It was valuable information because it denoted the vitality of those Catholic communities, despite the experience of many years of difficulty and tension.
- The existence of two communities clearly emerged in the Church in China: one “clandestine”, with its own bishops, priests and faithful, and one that had accepted the presence and intervention of the civil authorities in religious affairs. There were already numerous bishops who had been ordained illicitly (the first illicit ordination took place in 1958), that is, without the Pope’s mandate, and tension emerged — sometimes even dramatically — between the faithful of the two communities. At the same time numerous Bishops, ordained without the pontifical mandate, requested legitimization.
- Saint John Paul II took a great personal interest in the development of the Catholic communities in China and he tried to establish contact with the Chinese Authorities. (I cannot forget my first meeting at the Beijing Embassy in Rome: difficult dialogue and tense human relations). How could I fail to remember, some of His interventions on the occasion of the anniversaries related to the figure of Matteo Ricci or His autograph letter to Deng Xiaoping, entrusted to the kind mediation of Senator Vittorino Colombo! On the ecclesial level the Holy See adopted a practical approach:
- a) support for the clandestine ecclesial communities that had suffered from their loyalty to Peter;
- b) facilitate the return to full communion of the Bishops who, after being illicitly consecrated,
had repeatedly requested legitimization (the Pope wanted no “de facto” schism);
- c) remain in contact with the Bishops who, especially for health reasons, were leaving the
- What emerged from these contacts-meetings with the Prelates? What emerged was a deep sense of ecclesial communion with the Pope, their acute suffering at having accepted the Episcopal Ordination in an illicit form, and their very strong desire to be authentically Catholic and Chinese.
I especially remember the meeting with Archbishop Ignazio Gong Pinmei of Shanghai (later Cardinal) with the Holy Father John Paul II. I had the privilege of accompanying him, with Fr Vincent Chu, S.J., to the entrance of the Pope’s private study. The elderly Prelate was in a wheelchair, he wore a simple black cassock, skullcap and pectoral cross. When we reached the Pope’s study, however, Archbishop Gong said to me: “I want to walk in” and got to his feet. After opening the door, the Pope embraced Archbishop Gong and said to him: “I thank you for your fidelity to Christ and to the Church”].
- Contacts with the Chinese Authorities, as I already mentioned, began in the time of Saint John Paul II. It was not an easy path as it was marked by tension, limited mutual trust, inadequate knowledge of both Parties, difficulty in understanding the nature and structure of the two systems, difficulty related to communication channels (there was no direct contact, times were slow …).
However, the need to build a bridge between the two Parties emerged, overcoming the inevitable mistrust and rigid principles (which for us is loyalty to the Doctrine). At the end of this journey we reached the current Provisional Agreement, signed on 22 September 2018. Undoubtedly, mutual trust has increased, and there are positive elements for dialogue (see last GCL meeting). I think that on both sides there is increased awareness that the Provisional Agreement is a point of arrival but also a starting point for a more concrete and fruitful dialogue between the two Parties for the good of the Church in China in harmony with the Chinese people. Let me remind you in this context of the Pope’s strong desire to travel to China. I cannot forget that even when he was in a wheelchair, he kept wondering if it would be possible for him to go to China.
- Pope Benedict XVI knew the “Chinese question” very well, because his Predecessor wanted Cardinal Ratzinger to be informed of every step being taken and to express his opinion. Many times I had the honour of meeting the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to inform him of current progress and hear his comments to report to the Holy Father. It is in this context that His Letter to the Bishops, priests, consecrated men and women, and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China, 2007, was drafted. I would like to highlight three main aspects of this fundamental document:
1) the Pope’s doctrinal clarifications and pastoral guidelines still retain their full validity today,
indeed they are such as to appear almost prophetic and, perhaps for this reason, have not yet
been fully implemented, but are a historical landmark. Thirteen years have passed and quite a
few things have changed.
2) to rebuild full ecclesial unity, apart from communion with Peter, reconciliation is necessary
between the related communities;
3) the Church in China, despite its being a “small flock”, must undertake the urgent mission of
spreading the Gospel.
- Pope Francis, in-line with his Predecessors, has contributed the novelty of his charism, identified new perspectives and given concrete support and new impetus to dialogue. In fact, it is in His Pontificate that the Provisional Agreement has been signed and the painful experience of the illicit Bishops ended. Today we can say that all the Bishops in China are in communion with Peter and that the conditions to deal with the various problems that still need to be resolved are in place. As I already said, this means that the Agreement is not only a point of arrival but also and above all a point of departure for a renewed evangelization. I have no illusions: the Agreement is undoubtedly a positive fact in the dialogue, but the path to the normalization of the life of the Church is still long. We realized through the meetings we have had with various Chinese Prelates that they have a deep desire to be fully Catholic, and therefore in communion with Peter and with the Bishops of the whole world, and to be fully Chinese at the same time. It is the great theme of inculturation.
I love to remember a passage from Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate which he partly inserted in his Message to the Chinese Catholics, dated 26 September 2018:
“Let us ask the Lord for the grace not to hesitate when the Spirit calls us to take a step forward. Let us ask for the apostolic courage to share the Gospel with others and to stop trying to make our Christian life a museum of memories. In every situation, may the Holy Spirit cause us to contemplate history in the light of the Risen Jesus. In this way, the Church will not stand still, but constantly welcome the Lord’s surprises” (n. 139).
This text seems to me highly programmatic for the life of the Church in China and for the action of the Holy See “in re sinense”: let us not hesitate when the Spirit demands that we take a step forward; and have the apostolic courage to communicate the Gospel and to contemplate history in the light of the Risen Jesus. Some might say that I am too optimistic. One thing is certain: I have never lived with illusions, but with hope, yes, ready to welcome the surprises of the Lord. Even in China!