09/13/2006, 00.00
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European Christians to the aid of China's young Church

by Bernardo Cervellera

A Colloquium just held in Triuggio (Milan) analyses changes that have taken place in the past 25 years within the Chinese Communist Party but especially within China's Christian communities. There was the revelation of a lively and modern Church, even if subject to persecution.

Triuggio (AsiaNews) – The Church in China, official and underground is more alive than ever. It is a Church that suffers and evangelizes, without waiting for diplomatic ties between China and the Vatican as a panacea. Although it is trampled by controls, arrests, and persecutions, it is growing at the rate of 150,000 adult baptisms per year. All this is taking place while the government confiscates property of the official Church and seeks to annihilate underground priests, who are forced to sleep in a different place every night to avoid capture. Even amid imprisonment, poverty and suppression, it manages to produce and spread theology correspondence courses; in cities it preaches the Gospel via computer and compact discs; in universities, Christian personalities discuss modern social problems with intellectuals: economic development, pollution and the crisis sparked by materialism.

This is the image that emerged from the European Catholic China Europe Colloquium (ECCC) held in Triuggio from 6 to 10 September. Around 200 people from China and the Catholic, missionary world participated in the meeting. Mgr John Tong, auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, was among leading representatives of the Asian world together with Orthodox personalities from the Moscow Patriarchate, and participants from the Protestant world. Among Italians who attended were Mgr Luigi Bressan, archbishop of Trento and president of the Episcopal Commission for Evangelization; Mgr Giovanni Giudici, bishop of Pavia, Mgr Angelo Mascheroni, auxiliary bishop of Milan, representative of Cardinal Tettamanzi, archbishop of the diocese hosting the meeting.

This year, the colloquium marked the seventh time it was held. An initiative launched informally in 1992 thanks to some European missionaries' interest and passion for China, little by little it became a reference point for ties between European Churches and the Church in China.

But the renewal of ties between European and Chinese Christians dates back almost 25 years, to the time after the death of Mao Zedong and the first timid overtures of Deng Xiaoping. This year's theme was precisely: "25 years of encounter with the Church in China: Evaluation looking to the future".

Recalling the Italian minister Vittorino Colombo

Among those who paved the way for this relationship, participants honoured in a special way the deceased Italian Minister, Vittorino Colombo, a Catholic politician who, with faith and courage and against all diplomatic tact, obtained the reopening of the first church in Beijing in 1981, after the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Commemorating the commitment of Vittorino Colombo, Fr Angelo Lazzarotto PIME, recalled that the Hon. Colombo had persistently called for the release of the then archbishop of Shanghai Ignatius Gong Pinmei, who had been in prison for nearly 30 years. In later trips, he also asked to be able to meet him. Fr Lazzarotto, who was present at that historic meeting on 14 December 1986, said: "Bishop Gong had been forbidden to address the foreign guest... at the end, Vittorino asked him to sing the Salve Regina together. Kissing his ring later, we knew we were honouring a martyr of the Chinese Church on behalf of the entire universal Church."

It fell to Fr Jeroom Heyndrickx CICM, a veteran on ties with China, to outline the first assessment of the 25 years from 1981 to 2006. In his report, he emphasised that "the China of today is not the same China of 25 years ago": the Communist ideology has now crumbled and the Communist Party is seeking to modernise itself. Actually, there are strong divisions in the leadership between conservatives and liberals. These tensions explain the "pendulum" nature of China's policy on religious freedom, with openings and closures, novel initiatives and crackdowns, modernisation and imprisonment.

However, throughout the colloquium, other speakers – including Fr Roman Malek SVD and Giancarlo Ponti PIME – underlined that, although there have been some adjustments, Beijing's religious policy has remained fundamentally unchanged in 60 years of Communism. This is due to the Confucian and imperial heritage that imposes controls on the life of Chinese people and the Communist project to destroy religions or at least dominate them.

A Church in transformation

Something which all speakers agreed about, on the other hand, was the reality that "the Church in China is no longer that of 25 years ago". In the early eighties, the Chinese Church had just emerged from the hurricane of the Cultural Revolution and the closure of its seminaries and convents lasting nearly 20 years. It was a Church poor in clergy, with very elderly priests and without members of religious orders, men or women.

The witnesses present at the meeting – priests, sisters and lay people, who cannot be name for security reasons – make it amply clear that today the Church in China is young: in many dioceses, the average age of priests is around 34, 35 years; in many areas religious vocations among women are flourishing at diocesan level, although there is still a government ban on encouraging male vocations and organising them into communities. Even the Church's commitments have developed. From a basic pastoral ministry of survival, today Christian communities have passed to greater involvement in charity work with orphans, elderly people and those who have AIDS. In many cases, in a country where all social support has been scrapped, they offer free medical care to the poor. All these commitments of the official and unofficial Church are well regarded by the government because they respond to the needs that the State itself is ignoring and failing to meet.

Spiritual and cultural education

The problems of this Church – beyond the external ones caused by persecution – are down to the divide between the relative youth of the new converts and the profound old age of its more elderly recruits, with a marked generation gap. Of the Chinese priests and sisters present, many bore witness to a lack of middle-aged (50 to 60 years, corresponding to the years of the Cultural Revolution) members of the clergy and female religious orders, who would have taken on roles of leadership and spiritual direction, and with whom the younger ones would have found themselves more easily in tune. The risk underlined by many, especially Mgr Tong, was that youth, without role models to follow, could wear themselves out with activism and pious practices without maturing in contemplation.

Another burning problem is the urgent need of education to make the transition from a traditional faith that is not based on reason – made up of devotions and rules – to a more adult faith, capable of living and testifying to the joy of a relationship with Jesus Christ. One priest said ironically: "The Church in China is a Church that reads the text of prayers; it is not a Church that prays".

For some time now, the lack of spiritual directors and figures close to youth, coupled with the need for deeper and more modern formation, has prompted dioceses in China to send seminarians, priests and sisters abroad. To date, the number of Chinese priests and sisters studying in Europe and America adds up to several hundreds. At the colloquium, the pros and cons of this relationship were assessed and attempts were made to come up with better ways of helping the Church of China. To avoid cultural shock as much as possible and to make the stay of Chinese students abroad more fruitful, missionary institutes ask dioceses to send to Europe or the USA only those people who have already been ordained (not seminarians), who have indications from the bishop for a study project and who have studied for a year the foreign language of the country where they have been invited.

Dialogue with society

Despite these difficulties, participants were amazed by the vitality of Chinese Christians and their abilities to offer a faith-based response to the problems of their society, marked in cities by consumerism and materialism that produce a spiritual void in youth. In many universities, Christians study and work alongside professors who seek to reflect on the evils caused by aggressive economic development: pollutions of waters and cities, migration, corruption and a lack of the rule of law. One Chinese professor said modern Chinese society presents many challenges: "the materialism of everyday life… frenetic individualism that encourages egoism and could not care less about other people, the future and the environment". The academic continued to say that the Church is "called to listen to the silent cry in the hearts of the people", showing that "a healthy collaboration between faith and reason improves human life and encourages respect for creation".

Behind the new face of the Church, the traditional one is still there: many villages in rural areas convert to the faith because Catholic priests know how to chase away demons, or through prayer, manage to heal the sick.

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