"The Church on trial in Mao's China" published
Vatican City (AsiaNews) - On October 24, 2001, in a message to participants at the international conference "Matteo Ricci: for a dialogue between China and the West," Pope John Paul II wrote as follows: "The Church must not be afraid of historical truth and she is ready - with deeply-felt pain - to admit the responsibility of her children. This is true also with regard to her relationship, past and present, with the Chinese people.
"Historical truth must be sought serenely, with impartiality and in its entirety. This is an important task to be undertaken by scholars and is one to which you, who are particularly well-versed in Chinese realities, can also contribute. I can assure you that the Holy See is always ready to offer willing cooperation in this research."
I believe that this valuable work by Fr. Angelo Lazzarotto, PIME, can and should be read in this perspective. This is, in fact, an historic exploration of the human, religious, and evangelizing experience of a group of Italian missionaries of the PIME (according to the numbers provided, during that time the PIME had 153 missionaries in China, of whom 5 were bishops, 139 priests, and 9 lay brothers) in the rural province of Henan, situated in the heart of China.
The span of time examined is not very long - from 1937 to the first half of the 1950's - but it is of great interest from a political and ecclesial point of view. The first date is that of the Japanese invasion, which had a significant influence on the life of the Chinese population, and of the apostolic vicariates of Nanyang, Kaifeng, and Weihui (modern Anyang), entrusted to priests of the PIME. The second period saw the definitive expulsion of missionaries from those territories on the part of the authorities of the People's Republic of China.
Fr. Lazzarotto's work follows carefully, step-by-step, the activity of evangelization in the three vicariates, highlighting the generous dedication of these missionaries, the flowering of many apostolic and social initiatives (schools, hospitals, orphanages, etc.) in spite of the increasingly serious difficulties connected to these particular historical moments, so complex and turbulent.
The precise analysis by Fr. Lazzarotto cannot help but take into consideration the religious policy of the new Chinese government, and its inevitable repercussions on the life of the ecclesial community in Henan, and then the entire country.
Fr. Lazzarotto's calm and careful consideration of the historical journey of these communities and their pastors emphasizes how the proclamation of the Word took place among many sufferings arising from various situations, certainly not dependent on the Church itself or on its leaders. In Henan as well, the historical situation with its political developments did not always show a complete clarity of judgment and behavior. Pope John Paul II made reference to these limitations in the message cited above: "History, however, reminds us of the unfortunate fact that the work of members of the Church in China was not always without error, the bitter fruit of their personal limitations and of the limits of their action. Moreover, their action was often conditioned by difficult situations connected with complex historical events and conflicting political interests. Nor were theological disputes lacking, which caused bad feelings and created serious difficulties in preaching the Gospel. In certain periods of modern history, a kind of 'protection' on the part of European political powers not infrequently resulted in limitations on the Church’s very freedom of action and had negative repercussions for the Church in China. This combination of various situations and events placed obstacles in the Church’s path and prevented her from fully carrying out - for the benefit of the Chinese people - the mission entrusted to her by her Founder, Jesus Christ."
The various human-religious-ecclesial situations of those involved emerge. As Pope John Paul II wrote to a Chinese Catholic: "our tree has lost many leaves in the storm"; but it is also true that there have been many more heroic testimonies to faithfulness to Christ, to the Church, and to the successor of Peter. In many cases, these were silent heroes who followed Christ crucified and by their actions made it possible for the Church to take root in Chinese soil.
In various passages of his letter to the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China (May 27, 2007), Pope Benedict XVI recalled "the deeply-felt witness of faithfulness offered by the Chinese Catholic community in truly difficult circumstances" (no. 4), with special reference to members of the Chinese episcopate who "have undergone persecution and have been impeded in the exercise of their ministry, and some of them have made the Church fruitful with the shedding of their blood" (no. 8).
It is this Church, tempered in the crucible of suffering, that has been called to bear witness to Christ, "to look forward with hope, and - in proclaiming the Gospel - to measure up to the new challenges that the Chinese People must face" (ibid, no. 3). Catholics are only asking the authorities to guarantee their ability to enjoy a more and more complete exercise of their faith, in respect for authentic religious freedom.
Finally, I heartily thank Fr. Lazzarotto who, with passion and with love for the Church in China, has given us this wonderful glimpse into the life of the PIME missionaries in Henan.
+ Claudio Celli
Titular archbishop of Civitanova
President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications