Rome (AsiaNews) - If one could define Fr Giovanni Bricco, it would be as someone who was able to bridge two countries and two worlds: Italy and China, West and East. Born on August 3, 1868, Giovanni Bricco started his adult life as a soldier in the Italian army, then followed his vocation into the priesthood and spent 30 years as a missionary in China.
For many years, he brought to Henan province whatever useful the West could offer to China: medicine, surgery, military art, philosophical and theological studies. And for many years he worked to make Christians in Italy aware of the needs of the missions and the requirements of the Chinese clergy and seminars. He did the same for the schools for orphans and girls (a first in China), for the country's agriculture and cotton industry. For his efforts, he was given a knighthood from the Italian King. His commitment to the Chinese people was rewarded with the 'Golden Ear" in Nanyang (southern Henan), where he carried out his activities as a missionary. Today, all that his left of his life and mission are found in some reports and a few hundred photos left with his family and filed away in the archives of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME).
It is from the photos and the few scraps of information about him that we can get picture of his life and mission in turn-of-the-century China.
Sometimes the photos show a man in a romantic pose; in others, we see him with a determined look, a nobleman's moustache, an imposing figure. Like all good soldiers of his age, he knew how to ride horses and shoot rifles. In some photos, he is wearing the black cassock typical of the Roman Catholic Church; more often though he is dressed like a Chinese dignitary. After the exploits of Matteo Ricci's mission, missionaries tried every which way to bridge the gap that separated them from Chinese culture and so they naturally wore Chinese-styled clothing and headgear. It would even seem that, for a while, Father Bricco wore a Chinese pigtail . . . that was eventually sold to raise money for the mission.
Nineteenth century missions in China saw various attempts to modernise the Empire in fields as different as farming, construction, medicine and education. Until then education was a prerogative of the rich and of men. There was no tradition in teaching girls. Like Mother Teresa's mission in Kolkata (India), Father Bricco's mission in Henan took in abandoned girls and all sorts of children, including the disablethe blind, the crippled, the mentally ill. Among the photos showing Father Bricco, there is one in which he is holding a violin, surrounded by a "gang" of blind children or children with obvious mental illness.
All this was a culture shock for his Chinese contemporaries. But then the Chinese had already had an even greater shock decades earlier when their Empire was unable to defend itself against foreign, mostly Western (Japan, USA, Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia) military intervention that reached as far as Beijing.
Foreign intervention forced China's rulers to accept the presence of foreigners in the country, grant them land and commercial privileges and allow foreign powers to station troops on Chinese soil. All this highlighted the Empire's backwardness, isolation and disintegration; it also provoked to growing resentment and hatred for foreigners.
It was this hatred and this weakness that turned smouldering embers into the fires of the Boxer Rebellion in the summer of 1900 when a religious sect turned armed movement and rose up against the foreign presence in China. And since Western powers had successfully demanded freedom for Christian missionaries and missions to evangelise, Christians were treated as foreign invaders.
In 1900 Father Bricco was in Qinjiakang (today Jingang), a few kilometres from Nanyang, where there was a small Christian stronghold. His military background came in handy for he was able to lead local defenders in pushing back three Boxer attacks using wooden canons, lime bombs and some rifles. During the fight, the defenders captured seven enemies but instead of executing them, they were given medical attention and sent on their way. Elsewhere, the Boxer rebels killed tens of thousands of Christians, including Saint Alberico Crescitelli martyr.
In the end, huge floods and foreign troops pushing as far as Beijing brought the revolt to an end, adding further humiliations to China's lot. But for PIME missionaries, it was time to build a more indigenous Church. With the Boxer Rebellion over, Father Bricco brought two Chinese seminarians to Rome to study. Their presence and at the urging of various missionaries in Pope Pius XI's entourage, the Holy Father decided to ordain the first Chinese bishops in 1923.
Still, as the Church tried to inculturate itself in the country, the land was shaken by revolution. In 1911, the Empire fell and the Republic of China was born. But things did not get much better; several regions fell prey to local warlords and their armed gangs. It was a time when justice was meted out with terrorising violence. We can see it in the pictures of executions, of decapitated men, Father Bricco took. But these photos do not express horrorthere is some kind of scientific detachment, of reporting matter-of-factly "men's justice". In 1909, the former soldier was transferred to Zhumadian to serve in the new hospital that was built with funds raised in Italy.
Run by PIME missionaries, the hospital was the greatest form of charitable help the Chinese could receive. Photos show nuns and attendants working in a very clean ward, with its marble floor, oil lamps, beds and blankets. It was probably the first time that Western medicine and surgery were performed in Henan.
Traditional Chinese medicine knew about herbs, physical rehabilitation, homeopathy, but could hardly cope with serious diseases and epidemics.
Thanks to Father Bricco's hospital in Zhumadian, locals increasingly came to love Christians. Even today, more than fifty years after the Communist takeover, the 55,000 local Catholics are among the most dynamic Catholic communities in Henan.
In 1916 an aging Father Bricco came home to Italy to run PIME's mother house in Milan. He reorganised its management and raised funds and awareness among its benefactors, godmothers and ladies from the city's top society. For a while he served as rector at the PIME seminary in Monza (Lombardy), but in 1936, he was back in China on a canonical visitation to his old missions. A few years before his death during World War Two, he wisely purchased (with money he inherited) real estate right near PIME's mother house on Via Mosè Bianchi in Milan. He donated it to PIME which used it to build its Missionary Centre in the 1970s.
Father Giovanni Bricco passed away in Sciolzè, near Turin (Piedmont) on November 28, 1943.