On 22 September 2018, the Vatican Press Office announced the signing of a “Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China on the Appointment of Bishops”.
It is helpful to understand this Accord as if it were truly a harmony of notes. One might say it is like the incipit of a piece of music being composed. It is therefore not a matter of concluding a process, but really of its start, which needs to be implemented through tools for checking and improving the text.
I shall first try to take stock of a recent itinerary linked to the figure of Pope Francis, who has repeatedly expressed both his admiration for China and his desire to overcome the obstacles to solid and positive dialogue.
We will then look at how this desire sprang from the ministry of his Predecessors, as indeed the commitment to develop the premises laid down by the previous pontificates.
We will therefore try to evaluate the meaning of the Agreement, the form and logic that substantiate it. We shall then go on to enumerate a series of positive challenges that the signing of this Agreement implies.
Francis’ interest in China
On 14 August 2014, the Alitalia flight, that took Pope Francis on his Apostolic Journey to Korea, flew over China: for the first time, a pontiff was allowed to fly over its skies. In the telegram sent to President Xi Jinping, Francis wrote: “Upon entering Chinese air-space, I extend my best wishes to Your Excellency and all citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being on the nation”. In a historic interview with Francesco Sisci for Asia Times, published on 2 February 2016, the Pope, recalling that moment, said: “when I flew over China for the first time, they said to me: ‘Within ten minutes we will enter Chinese airspace and we will convey your greetings’. I must admit I was very excited, something that doesn’t happen to me often. I was thrilled at the idea of flying over so much culture and wisdom”.
During the flight back to Rome, Francis recalled the emotion he had felt at the moment of the overflight and the second telegram sent to the Head of State of China: “I wish to renew to you, Your Excellency, and to your citizens, the assurance of my highest esteem, and I invoke the divine blessing on this land”.
The third fly-over occurred during his return trip from the Philippines on 18 January 2015. On this occasion the Pope wrote to the President, among other things: “I assure you of my prayers for you and for all the people of China, invoking above all abundant blessings of harmony and prosperity”. During the flight Press Conference, a few minutes later, Francesco asked: “What, should I want to go to China?”. Sure: tomorrow! Oh yeah. We respect the Chinese people; the Catholic Church seeks no privilege from China and its leaders, but solely the freedom to carry out her mission, her work; no other conditions. Then, we must not forget the fundamental Letter on the Chinese problem that Pope Benedict XVI sent to the Chinese religious. Today that Document is current, it is relevant. Re-reading it is good. And the Holy See is always open to contacts: always, because it has “cordial esteem for the Chinese people”.
The desire for a diplomatic bridge with China, apart from that highly symbolic “one in the fly-over”, has been made explicit by the Pope several times. He has expressed both the desire to go to China and the desire to restore friendly relations. “China”, — he said on his return from the United States on 27 September 2015, — “is a great nation, which offers the world a great culture and many good things. I once said on the ’plane, returning from Korea, that I would very much like to go to China. I am fond of the Chinese people; I love them. I hope there will be a chance to entertain a good relationship; good relations. We are in contact, we talk about it…. Go ahead. To have a country like China as a friend, with its great culture and so many opportunities to do good, would be a joy for me”.
In the interview with Professor Sisci, the root of the Jesuit Pope’s interest in the country also emerged: “China has always been a reference point of greatness for me” — Francis said. — “A great country, but more than a country, a great culture, with inexhaustible wisdom. As a boy, whenever I read anything about China it had the capacity to inspire my admiration. I admire China. Later, I looked into Matteo Ricci’s life and I saw how this man felt the same thing in the exact way I did, admiration, and how he was able to enter into dialogue with this great culture, with this age-old wisdom. He was able to ‘encounter it’”.
An important aspect of the December 2017 trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh was the fact that the Pope was the first person to explicitly formulate the new role that China wishes to play — and is already playing — in the international context. A fact that Francis himself summarized, in the Press Conference on his return to Rome from Dhaka, with these precise words: “Beijing has a great influence on the region; it is natural. I do not know how many kilometers of border Burma has [with China]; also at the masses there were Chinese who had come…. And I think these countries that surround it, also Laos, Cambodia, have a need for good relations, they are close. And I see this as wise, politically constructive, it can move ahead. It is true that China today is a world power. If we see it from this side, it can change the picture”. Moreover, we know well, that it would not be possible to think of peace in the world without considering the role played by China. In our time, marked by trade wars and headstrong spirits, this reflection has even greater value.
It is important to note that the trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh was carefully followed by China. The press of the People’s Republic reported it, in particular the Global Times, a tabloid published by the People’s Daily. Let us also remember that the Global Times has recently dedicated many articles to the Pontiff, and unexpectedly published a large photo of Francis on its front page on 18 February 2017.
This time too, the Pope did not hide his wish to undertake a possible trip: “I would so much like to visit China. I would like to. It is not a hidden thing. The negotiations with China are at a high cultural level”. Again, on the flight from Dhaka to Rome, he added in terms of the political dialogue: “… which must go step by step, delicately, as it is doing, slowly”…. And he concluded: “But the doors of the heart are open. And I think it would do well: to make a trip to China. I’d like to do it”.
Speaking of China, Francis used an interesting expression: “if we consider it from this aspect, it could change the perception of the panorama”. And he spoke of “politically constructive” international relations. We must not mistake the meaning of these words, because they are the key to Bergoglio’s “diplomacy of mercy”.
The complex relations between China and the Holy See
The history of relations between the Catholic Church and China is very complex. Let us recall that Christianity first reached China over a thousand years ago, but it did not last long. Alopen, a Syrian monk, introduced Nestorian Christianity in the seventh century, during the T’ang Dynasty, and he founded several monasteries and churches. Nestorianism reappeared in the Mongolian period in the thirteenth century, and entered into crisis in China in the first half of the fourteenth century. The Franciscan, Bishop John of Monte Corvino, (1307), began his evangelizing mission among the Mongols in Peking, which however came to an end after the close of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, in 1368.
The arrival of the first Jesuit missionaries took place in 1582, during the Ming Dynasty: Matteo Ricci and his companions worked there up to the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644). In that period Catholics enjoyed the high social esteem and great respect of the majority of Chinese society, including government officials, royal family members and scholars. The number of Catholics increased. Then the Chinese Rites Controversy led the Chinese Emperor to ban Christianity; the ban lasted about a hundred years.
If we go straight to modern times we must remember that following the First Opium War (1839-42), in the framework of the weakness of the Chinese Empire and the affirmation of the Western powers in China with the “Unequal Treaties”, the French Protectorate of the missions of the Catholic Church, concerned both foreign and indigenous Catholics. The Catholics’ bond with France reinforced the idea that Christianity was a foreign religion and it aroused xenophobia for Christians which latter exploded tragically with the Boxer Rebellion in 1900-1901: about 30,000 Catholics were killed. In 1860, after the Second Opium War, the Treaty of Nanjing conceded the Christian missions better conditions and the Jesuits entered China for the second time.
The Empire ended in 1912 and the advent of the Republic of China took place. On 12 August 1922, Pius XI appointed and sent Bishop Celso Costantini as the first Apostolic Delegate in China. Bishop Celso celebrated the Episcopal Conference of Shanghai in 1924, in preparation for the ordination of the first six Chinese Bishops in Rome in 1926. In 1946, during the first Consistory at the end of the Second World War, Pius XII created the first Chinese Cardinal: the Divine Word Missionary Thomas Tien Ken-sin. In the same year, the episcopal hierarchy was set up in China; its structure still appears in the Pontifical Yearbook as: 20 archdioceses, 85 dioceses, 34 apostolic prefectures.
In 1949 the new communist regime led by Mao Zedong seized power and the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed. In January 1951 the Religious Affairs Office was established. Foreign Catholic missionaries would be expelled in the first half of the 1950s. In 1957 the “Catholic Patriotic Association” was founded. Between the end of 1957 and the beginning of 1958 the first episcopal ordinations took place without papal mandate. In 1966 Mao Zedong started the Cultural Revolution. This meant the prohibition of all religious functions, the closure of all places of worship, the prohibition of religious practice. Members of the Patriotic Association would also be severely affected.
The beginning of the Pontificate of John Paul II in 1978 practically coincided with the start of Deng Xiaoping’s Reforms. In 1979 there were the first signs of opening in the religious field. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, many “patriotic” bishops in the new situation asked for recognition from Rome through reserved channels and received it. In January 2007, the closing communiqué of the meeting of a Commission on China in the Vatican affirmed that almost all bishops and priests were in communion with Rome.
In the year 2000 new difficulties arose in the relations between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, especially concerning the ordination of new illicit bishops in China and the canonization in Rome of 120 Chinese martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion precisely on 1 October, the National Holiday of the People’s Republic. Subsequently, John Paul II worked hard to overcome these difficulties: in particular, with a resonant “Message for the Fourth Centenary of the Arrival in Peking of Matteo Ricci, S.J.”, at a conference at the Gregorian University (24 October 2001). Then, some “errors” were admitted and the hope expressed “to see concrete ways of communication and cooperation established between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China”.
Benedict’s: “Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Priests, consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China”, dated, 27 May 2007, was published. It was full of pastoral instructions and stressed the unity of the Church and also hoped for “a serene and constructive dialogue with the civic authorities”.
Citing what John Paul II had affirmed in a Message dated, 24 October 2001, Benedict XVI wrote: “I am also following with particular interest the events of the entire Chinese people, whom I regard with sincere admiration and sentiments of friendship, to the point that I express the hope ‘that concrete forms of communication and cooperation between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China may soon be established’”, because “Friendship is nourished by contacts, by a sharing in the joy and sadness of different situations, by solidarity and mutual assistance’. And, pursuing this line of argument, my venerable Predecessor added: ‘…It is no secret that the Holy See, in the name of the whole Catholic Church and, I think, for the benefit of the whole human family, hopes for the opening of some form of dialogue with the Authorities of the People’s Republic of China. Once the misunderstandings of the past have been overcome, such a dialogue would make it possible for us to work together for the good of the Chinese People and for peace in the world’…. I realize that the normalization of relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See requires time and presupposes the good will of both parties”.
Considering that for decades the bishops had been elected locally throughout the country, in churches functioning with government approval and that, in many cases these candidates had not been ordained with the approval of the Episcopal Hierarchy in Rome. We recall that the legitimization process was started by Saint John Paul II and that it concerned about forty bishops from 2000 up to today. As bishops appointed unofficially, often ordained by other bishops who had been appointed in the same way without Vatican approval, they were, formally speaking, automatically excommunicated. But later, over the decades, Agreements were reached between these bishops and Rome. No major problem was ever raised, and these bishops and the Holy See found ways to recognize these appointments and thus move forward with the reconstruction of the dioceses and the life of the Church. Starting from today there is a well-founded hope that relations between the Holy See and China will take a clearer form.
Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has shown lively and “cordial esteem for in the Chinese” several times, contributing to the establishment of a new and more relaxed atmosphere, which allows the effective resumption of the dialogue between the Holy See and the Authorities of China. Contacts have increased and the channels of communication appear to be more stable and effective. Thus, Francis has trodden the same path as Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The text of the Agreement signed today differs minimally from that drawn up in the time of Benedict XVI, which was “not, therefore, a political document”, (Declaration, Saturday, 30 June 2007). The current Agreement certainly provides a solid basis for future developments.
A very important step in the relations between the Holy See and China was marked by the historic interview Francesco granted Prof. Sisci for Asia Times, as mentioned above. Among other things, the Pope stressed the importance of dialogue, which “does not mean that we end with a compromise”, but means: “Look, we have got to this point, I may or may not agree, but let us walk together. This is what it means to build”.
This is precisely the logic of the Agreement, dated 22 September. It is therefore a step that clearly implies progress and mutual listening in order to move forward together, overcoming the season of misunderstanding. It is a short but very important step. The path will have to be verified over time, but the direction taken appears to be the right one.
The significance of the Agreement
The institutional dialogue between China and the Holy See has been going on since 1986, that is, for more than 30 years: it would be a mistake therefore to imagine that this progress is linked to recent times. If anything, it indicates an important stage on a journey made up of very thoughtful steps on both sides. What has been concretized is the recognition of the full communion of the Chinese Bishops ordained without papal mandate and agreement on the praxis to follow in the appointment of future Pastors. Let us also note that Francis has now created a new diocese on Chinese territory.
Within the said trajectory that has led China and the Holy See to meet to draw up an Agreement, some have wondered if it is acceptable to cede the authority to ordain bishops to the Chinese Government. This question is incorrectly formulated. The Church does not cede the authority to ordain bishops. Rather, the history of the Church should be seen as the history of the search for agreement with the political authorities on the appointment of bishops.
In current Agreements with some Western democratic countries regulations still control the government’s power to veto the appointment of bishops. In some countries, the civil government still has the right to consultation or even of presentation: Argentina, Austria, the German States of Baden and Bavaria, Bolivia, Ecuador, France, Haiti, Italy, Monaco, Peru and Poland. In the United States, Catholics were accused for centuries of being loyal to the Pope and not to Washington, and therefore they were called “papists”, a derogatory term. In Italy during the First World War, the Catholics were suspected of siding with Austria, a country considered to be Catholic. The Holy See has even reached a consensus with Vietnam — a communist country — on the appointment of bishops and there were no major difficulties or opposition. China and the Holy See both show goodwill. It is certainly in the interests of both parties to choose candidates who are forward-looking, balanced and well integrated in their communities.
We could also take a step back in time and mention the stipulation of the 1801 Concordat between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Holy See. Through this Concordat an attempt was made to regulate the relationship between the modern State and the Catholic Church, between civil society and professed religion in a new way. It helped to strengthen the French Catholic world and put an end to the schism in the Constitutional Church, which had painfully set the Catholic faithful in opposition.
This Agreement between China and the Holy See should not be considered as isolated or as the final and conclusive point of a process. On the contrary, it must be framed within a progressive dialogue that will develop and be confirmed over time. Of course, one cannot exclude that misunderstandings or difficulties may arise in the future that will need to be resolved. Nevertheless, the difficulties are no longer such as to prevent Chinese Catholics from living in communion among themselves and with the Pope. And this is certainly a significant step. And it is in-line with what Cardinal Pietro Parolin stated in an interview with Gianni Valente, published in ‘Vatican Insider’, on 3 February 2018: It is not therefore a question of perpetuating conflict between principles and opposing structures, but of finding realistic pastoral solutions that allow Catholics to profess their faith and to continue the joint work of evangelization in the specific context of China.
Then, we must not forget that the Patriotic Association has been an influential institution in the Chinese Church for more than half a century. Let us keep in mind that it was started in a particular moment in history that might well evolve, as seems to have happened recently.
The logic of the world map
The Agreement between China and the Holy See is radically and essentially pastoral in character. Its purpose is to ensure that the Church can preach the Gospel better without the hindrance of internal conflict that can be overcome with the goodwill of all. Furthermore, this Agreement represents a message of hope in a world where conflict and fear seem to dominate the scene.
In February 2017, on the occasion of the publication of the 4,000th issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, Pope Francis suggested that the magazine take as its model, a man who loved China without reserve: Matteo Ricci or Lì Mădòu, as he was known in China (1522-1610). This Jesuit priest — who moved to China at the age of 30 — made a large map of the world depicting the hitherto known continents and islands. Thus, the Chinese could see many distant lands in a new way with their names and brief captions. His world map also served to create links with other civilizations and the Chinese. The map of the world is, in fact, a bridge that connects all the lands, cultures and civilizations under heaven. In a divided world like ours, in a world full of walls and obstacles, the ideal of a harmonious land at peace must infuse our action.
In a speech to UNESCO in 2014, President Xi Jinping used the image of many colours to describe the “magnificent genetic map of the journey of human civilizations” on earth. And he added that the palette of the various civilizations is enriched by “greater exchanges and mutual learning”, offering prospects for the future. That speech directly addressed the so-called “clash of civilizations”.
Quoting Yan Zi, Prime Minister of the State of Qi [Ch’i], a contemporary of Confucius, the President also used the image of music that combines measure, rhythm, feeling, tone, style…. “Who could tolerate the same note played insistently on a single instrument?”. Hence his conclusion: “Today we live in a world with different cultures, ethnic groups, skin color, religions and social systems and all the peoples on the face of the earth have become members of an intimately united community with a shared destiny”.
Pope Francis used the image of the artist’s palette too and proposed “the civilization of encounter” as an alternative to “the incivility of conflict”. We also recall that, in the interview granted to Professor Sisci, Francis said: “The Western world, the Eastern world and China all have the capacity to maintain the balance of peace and the strength to do so”.
But the balance Francesco means is not the result of compromise and division — the Yalta model, so to speak — but of dialogue. It is, moreover, evident that the itinerary which led up to the Agreement between China and the Holy See envisaged the international scene and the specific importance China has assumed. In this historic situation, Francis’ pastoral attitude could have a significant impact on geopolitical dynamics, as well as defuse future catastrophes some have predicted several times.
On the other hand, the Agreement of 22 September was signed on his own authority: [“I signed it myself, I am responsible for it”, [the Pope said on the return flight from Talin, Estonia, 25 September 2018, to a journalist], and indeed disregarding those who would have liked to see a Holy See subjected to the “protocol” of the strong Western powers. This was to generate some “belly-aching”, which has actually been widely manifested. The Holy See imperturbably implements the lesson of the then- Archbishop Celso Costantini (later Cardinal), whom Pius XI appointed Apostolic Delegate in China, by rejecting all forms of foreign support or “Protectorate” for Chinese Catholics.
Francesco Sisci’s interview with the Pope ended with a significant wish for the President of China. It reveals the hope that Francis continues to express, as he addresses every politician, for the good of humanity: “may you continue to go forward in order to help and cooperate with everyone in caring for our common home and our common peoples”.
Building up trust
It is also necessary to admit that the history of the relations between the West and China has been deeply scored by colonialism and Western imperialism. Thinking about the relationship between China and the Catholic Church, it can be said that this historical wound has given rise to problems, anxiety and reciprocal fear. Indeed, time is needed to build up a relationship of trust between China and the Holy See. And, the most important thing is: trust.
Here too we can let Matteo Ricci guide us, because he had “friendship” at heart. In 1601 Ricci wrote a “Treatise on Friendship” in which Chinese and Western wisdom intertwined. This interesting work offered the mandarins and scholars at the Ming Court an opportunity to get to know the thought of the great Western philosophers; while for other Jesuit Fathers it served as a basis for understanding and dialoguing with the great intellectuals of China. Trust is based on the vital power of dialogue, which manages to transform the mind, at times requiring much dedication and sometimes even suffering.
“When one considers a friend as oneself” — Ricci wrote — “then the distant one approaches, the weak one is strengthened, those who have suffered misfortune return to prosperity, the sick person is healed”. Confidence draws people closer, it strengthens and heals wounds: even those wounds that are still open and gaping, due to persecution. Trust is a time-consuming process. It is a “way” rather than a “goal”: a “way” in the knowledge that unity prevails over conflict. The process of change must not be hindered by destructive and insurmountable conflict. Trust is also the best vehicle, like riding a bicycle, which enables one to advance at the right speed without stopping.
It is no coincidence that Fr. Martino Martini (1614-1661), in his “Treatise on Friendship”, used the sea, navigation and shipwreck [which he had experienced] as metaphors to address the theme of friendship. There is beauty and suffering in friendship. Reconciliation and dialogue, founded on a trust capable of overcoming obstacles and errors, are a profound form of “conversion” to which we are all called.
This is why Pope Francis chose the theme of friendship to talk about China. With regard to the Chinese, Francis undoubtedly feels that empathy that can set in motion the dynamic that leads — from meeting to meeting — ever onwards. The situation of the Church in China has changed greatly over the decades and also over the past decade. This is very important in the search for the most appropriate and acceptable ways to continue the journey today.
The many challenges of today
If up to now much of the ecclesial debate treated dissention and internal tension, now — thanks to this First Agreement — we can concentrate on the positive pastoral challenges better. It is not our task to describe them all in full here. Nevertheless, it might be useful at this point, to mention some of the most significant articles that have appeared over the past two years in the magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, in the well over 20 articles, on the subject. At least it will help one to look to the future with a vigilant and hopeful heart.
The spiritual challenge.
China is changing rapidly and facing challenges that are different from those of the past. We know that over the past ten years, it has experienced a rapidly expanding economy, which has attracted the attention of the international community. This economic development has led Chinese society and people to look for a meaning to be given to existence through different traditions and disciplines. The “Christian path” of this research is a topical issue in the social, political and educational debate in the country. Indeed, the economic developments and progress have not eliminated spiritual needs: faith and spirituality contribute significantly to the understanding of the human being, human values and aspirations. In all sectors, life has become too materialistic and utilitarian, causing many people to move away from their own traditions and culture. Furthermore, the ideas and behaviour of many Chinese now differ from their traditional spiritual customs and values. What form of evangelization and service has the Chinese Catholic Church in mind in order to make itself close to these people who are in constant search for meaning? Is the Church ready to face this challenge?
The “political” challenge.
The Chinese Catholic Church is also called to redefine its role and relations with the Communist Party and its ideology. This does not mean that the Church must always agree with the policies and values of the Party, but rather that it must find good reasons to continue its mission and ministry in China. In an interview with Il Sussidiario, Francesco Sisci stated: “The point is not whether or not the Communist Government of China is ideal or evil. The point, as the Pope said, is: “what can be done?”. And he concluded: “Of course, in doing one risks making mistakes but one may also do well. Besides”, as the Pope said, “not to try to do good, is bad”. Moreover, the Chinese cultural and traditional values and the Gospel values and ecclesial teaching have many things in common. Both Chinese society and the Church must come to understand and appreciate these common values and continue their dialogue in search of the common good.
The challenge of internal divisions.
We should also remember that there has been much tension between the so-called “official” and “unofficial” communities, each of which has suffered on account of the faith in different ways. However, we cannot stay forever anchored to the past without supposing that the suffering experienced may bear fruit in future reconciliation. Today, both communities are called to enter a new phase in order that the Gospel may be preached more effectively in China. Today, pastoral and missionary conversion is more than ever fundamental. Hitherto the distinction drawn between the communities and their relations was the result of local situations. Now, in the large cities especially, they are more remote and less relevant for young Catholics. Nevertheless, Chinese Catholics are well aware of the burden that these divisions and difficulties have caused and still cause in their relations with the civil authorities, making the path of the Catholic Church in China arduous still today. On the other hand, the Protestant communities are definitely more active and less hampered by internal tension. The two communities — the “official” and the “unofficial” — must not allow the hatred and wounds of the past to condition life and hinder the great mission that awaits them. Tension and misunderstanding must be overcome. The bishops and priests must take the first step by uniting and working together for the Kingdom of God in China, without clashing over matters of influence and prestige. In this way ecclesial reconciliation, which is fundamental for the development of the Catholic Church in China, will become possible.
This is how Cardinal Parolin summarized this challenge in an interview he granted Gianni Valente: “Of course, many wounds are still open today. To treat them we need to use the balm of mercy. And if someone is asked to make a sacrifice, small or great, it must be clear to everyone that this is not the price of a political exchange, but that it falls within the Gospel perspective of a greater good, the good of the Church of Christ. The hope is that … we will no longer have to speak of ‘licit’ and ‘illicit’, ‘clandestine’ and ‘official’ Bishops in the Church in China, but about meeting among brothers and sisters, learning the language of co-operation and communion again”, (Vatican Insider – La Stampa, 1 February 2018). This is the goal and hope that accompanies the step that has been taken and those that will be taken in the future.
The challenge of “sinicization”.
Since China has its own characteristics, the Chinese Catholic Church is called to be fully Catholic and fully Chinese in order to inculturate its Teaching and the Gospel values. Thus, assuming Chinese characteristics means delving deep into the inculturation process. The Church can dialogue with Chinese culture and tradition, with its rich history of art, music, literature and poetry. In his speech to UNESCO, cited above, President Xi Jingping praised the role religions have played in the life of the country. He said: “Over the past 2000 years, religions such as Buddhism, Islam and Christianity were introduced into China and they nourished the country’s music, painting and literature”. In the case of Christianity, there are countless examples. Here, we shall only mention the role that the great painter Giuseppe Castiglione (in Chinese Láng Shìníng), played. He was an Italian, born in Milan in 1688, who died in Peking in 1766 and the Emperor Qianlong, who highly esteemed him, granted that he receive an imperial funeral.
◦ A particular challenge consists in the fact that in recent years the Chinese leadership has repeatedly requested that the religions present on Chinese territory “Sinise” (zhongguohua), and conform to it. This demand has appeared repeatedly in President Xi Jinping’s speeches since 2015, but it intensified shortly before and after the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017. The President’s Report, at the beginning of the Congress, read to the effect: “We will fully implement the Party’s basic policy in religious matters, support the principle that religions in China must have a Chinese orientation, and provide working guidelines to the religions so that they can adapt to the socialist society”. If it is clear that no religion can become a mere tool of the political apparatus, the purport of the task that the Government requires religious organizations and believers to adopt is far from clearly defined. Perhaps, in a changing context, there may be room for comparison and imagination?
A reflection on the past may serve in this regard. We note that it was fundamental for Christianity to embrace its universal mission over and above the original Jewish experience and culture, to immerse itself deeply in Greek culture. This had a strong impact on the development of the life and mission of the Church, which then went on to transform the world of the Roman Empire. Greek was more than the culture of the Roman Empire: Aristotle and Plato influenced all culture from Rome to the slopes of the then impassable Himalayas. Christianity is formulated in Greek categories. What will thinking in Chinese categories mean? Here, it may be helpful to take into consideration what the then- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in the Preface to the Chinese translation of his book-interview: “The Salt of the Earth”. “The real question is: could the Christian faith provide a lasting answer, lived not only by a minority in China, and become a force that shapes all of China? Will an Asian or Chinese Christianity appear one day, just as a Greek and Latin Christianity arose from its transition from Judaism to the Gentile world? Or as a Germanic, Slav and European Christianity appeared in the late classical period? ” (italics added).
The theological challenge.
Theological reflection acquires meaning in this context. In the context of traditional Confucianism and Taoism, theology seeks to connect the great tradition of Chinese thought and sensitivity to Christianity. Christianity too must be thought out in Chinese terms and in the light of the great Chinese philosophy and wisdom. For example, the philosophical and mystical doctrines of ancient Taoism composed between the 4th and 3rd century BC should be explored in greater depth. In the Tao Te Ching, (The Book of the Way), the most translated book in the world after the Bible, one could find some perspectives well suited to Chinese thought that could be applied to the Gospel to understand it thoroughly and, conversely, to deepen the Christian message in a new way. Take for example the Christian commentary of the Tao Te Ching, Jesuit Fr. Claude Larre wrote in the late 1970s. If it is recognized that Jesus Christ sets man free without imposing any particular logic or unique philosophical vision on him, then nothing would prevent one from inserting faith in Christ into the heart of the simple, ardent and discreet spirituality of the Tao Te Ching.
A future to write
Thus, in light of the Agreement of 22 September, the Church in China is called to renew its mission to proclaim the Gospel with enthusiasm and contribute, in the most effective way, to the good of the Chinese people by spreading its religious message and its charitable and social commitment. This is why “the Holy See pursues a spiritual aim: to be and feel fully Catholic and, at the same time, authentically Chinese”, through a deep process of inculturation, in light of the universality proper to Catholicism (Vatican Insider-La Stampa, 1 February 2018). Therefore: authentically Chinese and fully Catholic. This is the goal that the Church has proposed since the time Archbishop Celso Costantini was Apostolic Delegate to China (1922-1933).
The Agreement should not be considered as a point of arrival, but as a starting point: there are no automatisms that guarantee the improvement of the quality of Chinese Catholic religious life. Although the challenges remain, the process of remodeling the relationship between the two parties is certainly positive for Chinese Catholics.
What Accord has the Catholic Church requested over time? Cardinal Parolin summarized it in the above-quoted interview: “in dialogue with China, the Holy See pursues a spiritual aim: to be and feel fully Catholic and at the same time authentically Chinese. With honesty and realism, the Church asks nothing but to profess her faith with more serenity, definitively ending a long period of contrasts, in order to give more room for greater trust and offer the positive contribution of Catholics to the good of Chinese society as a whole”.
The task is also summarized well in the words that Pope Francis spoke at the Angelus of 22 May 2016: “In this Holy Year of Mercy, may Chinese Catholics, together with those who follow other noble religious traditions, become concrete signs of charity and reconciliation. In this way, they will promote an authentic culture of encounter and the harmony of the whole of society. This harmony that the Chinese spirit so loves”.
On 14 February, in the sphere of the Munich Security Conference 2020, a meeting took place between His Excellency Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States of the Holy See, and His Excellency Mr. Wang Yi, Councilor of State and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China.
We know that during the interview the contacts between the two Parties were mentioned, which have developed positively over time. In particular, the importance of the Provisional Agreement on the Appointment of Bishops, signed on 22 September 2018, was highlighted, thus renewing the will to continue the institutional dialogue on a bilateral level to promote the life of the Catholic Church and the good of the People of China. Appreciation was expressed for the efforts being made to eradicate the coronavirus epidemic and solidarity with the affected population. Finally, hopes regarding greater international cooperation in order to promote civil coexistence and peace in the world, through intercultural dialogue and human rights were expressed.
And, what about us? What is our task in light of this new step inherent in the Agreement? “For our part”, as Cardinal Pietro Parolin affirmed at a recent conference: “we are all called to accompany with affectionate closeness, respect, humility and, above all with prayer, this path of the Church in China. It is a matter of writing a new page of history, looking forward with confidence in divine Providence and healthy realism, to ensure a future in which Chinese Catholics can feel deeply Catholic, even more visibly anchored to the firm rock which, by the will of Jesus, is Peter, and authentically Chinese, without denying or belittling what is true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, gracious (Phil 4:8), that their history and culture have produced and continue to produce”.