AsiaNews Symposium: Fr Gianni Criveller on evangelisation through charity and martyrdom

Fr Gianni Criveller gave his take on a book centred to the history of PIME in China. For him, the most significant issues are the evangelical value of charity and the continuity of 'Christianity' in China after the rise of communism and the expulsion of missionaries.


Rome (AsiaNews) – Father Gianni Criveller, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME), presented Sfide passate e presenti. Missionari del Pime in Cina (Past and present challenges. PIME missionaries in China) by Father Sergio Ticozzi. Fr Criveller has studied the Sinic world for decades, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and the People's Republic of China. He teaches Theology of mission at Holy Spirit Seminary College of Theology and Philosophy in Hong Kong.

Fr Criveller started off by saying that the book "has a rather ambitious task" since it tries to describe in 150 pages 150 years of exciting and complex yet painful history, that of 263 PIME missionaries in mainland China. "Obviously our task here is not to summarise the book," Fr Criveller said, but "to get people to read it."

What struck the missionary was the mission's "awesome" start. In just 12 years, the number of faithful doubled, schools were founded, seminaries were open and the poor were helped, this thanks to the contagious enthusiasm of "young missionaries" who worked with inadequate resources. "Such enthusiasm and generosity showed itself in the middle of a tragic situation that affected people, especially women and children,” Fr Criveller said. Only the missionaries did something for them.

For the missionary, it is significant that such charity boosted evangelisation. "Many converts were moved by the help they received from the missionaries. This lesson remains valid for the Church even today. What brings people to faith in Jesus is the show of love." Another important aspect is martyrdom. "This is no accident" but "the daily condition of Christian life," Fr Criveller said.

For the PIME missionary, a remarkable feature of the book is that the story continues even after the advent of communism and the expulsion of missionaries. "There is continuity in the life of the 'Christianities' founded by PIME, which must not be underestimated or concealed. "The fate of Chinese priests and believers is even more painful than that of missionaries. Their detention and their humiliation has lasted longer and has been more devastating." Their suffering is described as "an obvious thing," a path to "let the facts speak for themselves".

Criveller went on to describe the season of greater freedom inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping, which however carried its own trail of "shadows, divisions and sufferings, as well as hope. Life in many Catholic communities resumed, seminaries and convents reopened. Young men became priests and people converted."

Since the 1980s, contacts with old missions have been renewed. Contrary to what some saw as the "end of religions and Catholicism in China," Catholic communities had resisted and were growing again.

The missionary himself cited at least 20 members of PIME who devoted themselves to the study of the situation, and mentioned the contacts with the "old missions, not in order to go back to the past, but to support instead brothers and sisters in their effort to rise” again.

"As mentioned, the path of evangelisation is charity," Fr Criveller said. So many charitable activities include helping people with disabilities, helping poor and vulnerable people, studying and teaching. "PIME’s interest in China is alive and up-to-date, and is expressed in a thousand ways."

For him, Fr Ticozzi is a "good historian" who "does not avoid showing the flaws and limits of the Catholic mission in China" due to "contradictions within the missionary world itself and even the Holy See." To illustrate this point, he cited the book’s ending centred on an episode in the second half of the 19th century.

At that time, Pius IX wanted to give greater impetus to missions in response to opposition to the imperialism of the great powers of Europe. In China, the mission was under French Protectorate, following Napoleon’s attempt to counter British influence, seen as harmful to the mission by many missionaries. France’s anti-clerical government firmly maintained its claim to protectorate, thus preventing Pope Leo XIII from establishing diplomatic relations with the Chinese Empire in August 1886.

"As reported at the time, a tearful Pope Leon had no choice but to give in to the pressures from the ‘first daughter of the Church’. The Holy See felt all of its weakness, a power without power, victim of those who said they wanted to help it." In noting this moment in history cited by Fr Ticozzi, Fr Criveller "tried to offer elements for a broader and more accurate assessment of the Catholic mission in general, in particular that of PIME in China, at the time of imperialism."

In concluding, the missionary encouraged "everyone to read Sergio Ticozzi's book, which was published for this special occasion by AsiaNews.”

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