06/27/2023, 18.44
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Fr Charbonnier, witness of the rebirth of the Church in China, has passed away

A member of the Missions Etrangères de Paris, the clergyman died in France at the age of 91. A pioneer in rebuilding ties with communities that survived the Cultural Revolution, he published a "Guide to the Catholic Church in China" in 1986 that has become a major point of reference. “Their Christian faith is the faith of their ancestors,” he wrote elsewhere. “If they are sometimes labelled as foreigners, that is because they belong, like Christians in every country, to a Kingdom that is not of this world”.


Paris (AsiaNews) - The Church in China today mourns the death of a great friend and close partner, Fr Jean Charbonnier, a French missionary from the Missions Étrangères de Paris (MÉP), who passed away this morning at the age of 91 at the institute’s retirement home in Lauris, France.

With him disappears one of the great witnesses of the rebirth of China’s Catholic communities after the harsh winter of persecution of the Cultural Revolution.

After arriving in Singapore in 1959, he studied Mandarin and began to carry out his ministry serving local Chinese communities.  Eventually, he became a crucial protagonist in renewing relations with churches in China during the early thaw in the 1970s.

In 1980 the MÉP appointed him to lead the "Service Chine", tasked with resuming contacts with communities in 14 different mainland Chinese dioceses from where as many as 250 MÉP missionaries had been expelled in the 1950s under Mao.

In this effort, Fr Charbonnier was alone. His work was closely associated with three other great missionaries and China experts from other institutes: Fr Angelo Lazzarotto (PIME ) from Italy; Fr Jerome Heyndricks (Scheut missionaries) from Belgium; and Fr Roman Malek (Verbite) from Poland, who died in 2019. Jokingly, they were called the “Gang of four”, a moniker borrowed from four leaders of the Communist Party of China arrested in 1976 in what marked the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Giancarlo Politi, a PIME missionary who also died in 2019, was also very close.

Fr Charbonnier is remembered for writing the Guide to the Catholic Church in China, a precious tool describing his travels in various Chinese provinces. First published in 1986 in English and Mandarin, it was regularly updated until 2008, becoming an essential tool to break the ice between mainland Catholic communities and outside visitors.

His Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000 – published in 2002 (based on the original French, Histoire des chrétiens de Chine published in 1992, updated ten years later) – looks at the deep roots of the Christian faith in China, from the Xi'an stele to the death and resurrection of the 20th century.

"Their Christian faith," he wrote in the Preface, "is the faith of their ancestors. To begin with, during the first and second generations of Christianity’s presence in China, that faith was fragile and vulnerable, but later it became part of family tradition, which means that it benefitted from the tenacity of the basic Chinese principle of filial piety.”

“The Christians of China belong to a Chinese culture, as we will try to show. If they are sometimes labelled as foreigners, that is because they belong, like Christians in every country, to a kingdom that is not of this world, which  does not prevent them from fulfilling their task conscientiously and working actively for the renewal of the society they live in.”

In September 1993, Fr Charbonnier left Singapore for France called back by the Missions Etrangères de Paris with another major task for the Church in China, namely accompany seminarians from mainland China coming to study in France.

In this too, he was a pioneer. Welcoming the first four in 1994, from the dioceses of Shanghai and Wuhan, he planted another seed, which is now bearing fruit in China.

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