09/27/2016, 20.48
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Fr Gheddo: I saw the Church’s resurrection in China

He visited China during the Cultural Revolution and after Deng Xiaoping modernisations. Catholic communities that seemed destroyed blossomed again. Ties with old PIME missionaries expelled by Mao Zedong were renewed. The mission has now new frontiers. Here is Fr Piero Gheddo’s autobiography.

Milan (AsiaNews) – For the past few weeks, Father Piero Gheddo’s autobiography has been available in bookstores. One of the oldest Italian missionary journalists, he has been the editor of ‘Mondo e Missione’ for 40 years. He is also the founder of AsiaNews (in 1986) when it came out in paper.

Titled ‘Inviato speciale ai confini della fede. La mia vita di missionario giornalista’ (Special correspondent on the frontiers of faith. My life as a missionary journalist), EMI, pp. 224, € 14, preface by Andrea Tornielli, the book was written with Gerolamo Fazzini, a journalist and editorial consultant. In a book full of personal stories and views about international affairs as well as passion for people and the Church, we can perceive the difficulties and the enthusiasm of the young Churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America. By kind courtesy of EMI, we propose chapter 9 of the book, on China.

After I was ordained in 1953, I immediately began working in journalism, interviewing – among others – our PIME missionaries who had been expelled from China (140, including five bishops) at that time. They were quite pessimistic about the fate of the Chinese Church because, they said, "they are sending away us foreign missionaries, jailing bishops, priests and nuns, and they are closing churches, seminaries, convents, Catholic schools, the Catholic press,” adding that “Our poor ‘rice Christians’ will not resist the persecution. But we must continue to pray".

I saw China through the eyes of man, not God

In 1973 I went to China as a member of a Montedison* commission (replacing someone ill). The "Cultural Revolution" was in full swing and that China, I must confess, had almost fascinated me: discipline, order, cleanliness, dignity, national pride, dignified poverty, equality in needs. No beggars or lepers could be seen in the streets, etc. Then, reading Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, one could see views worthy of Saint Paul: "To each everything that he needs, from each all he can give'; "Serving the people is the ideal of the good Chinese"; "The ideal of communism is to change the heart of man."

I had moments of doubt in my granite conviction that Godless communism could not produce any positive results for people. China seemed to prove otherwise and the guide did not fail to repeat: "China has learnt to do without God." Not only Christians, but also Buddhists, Muslims, Confucians, had disappeared: state atheism seemed shared by the people. In the West and in Italy, Mao was considered by journalists and "prophets", the real saviour of China, who gave a bowl of rice to every Chinese every day [1].

Back in Italy, I later wrote that the Catholic Church no longer existed in China; centuries of mission did not bear fruit. I thought that the so-called "rice Christians", converted through food aid, no longer existed. So when freedom comes to China, we will have to "start over the evangelisation of the Chinese”. I was naive and blind. I saw China’s reality only through my poor human eyes. My trust in the Holy Spirit, the protagonist of the Church's mission, had not yet matured well!

Our trip to China had as its base a hotel for foreigners in Canton (Guangzhou). We had been invited to visit an exhibition of Chinese products. From the city, they took us to see the achievements of Maoist China, a large barracks. In the morning, the alarm clock sounded at six: music and patriotic songs throughout the metropolis. Shortly afterwards, men and women walked down the broad avenue along the river dressed all in much the same way, black or dark blue pants, white blouse. It was the start of the daily calisthenics, led by a strong and sonorous voice, with a background of patriotic music, found in any large city. Then, everyone went to work.

We did not visit China, except a narrow strip near Guangzhou, where we came back in the evening. They brought us to some schools, a modern hospital, "farming communes" with the community life of the families, everyone involved in work, with children maintained and educated by the state. Then, we went to see a large dam, built by thousands of men and women in groups, carrying loads on their backs, climbing on bamboo stairs that would scare your wits. Most of the work was manual. The various groups of the sector were competing. Everywhere different coloured flags marked the job done; it was a great show. In the evening, the group that had worked harder got a prize. The visit to the University was also interesting. The old buildings, classrooms, laboratories, scientific faculties, everything was the same as in the West. But when we went inside the great library we saw right away many shelves but a few books, almost each one in Chinese. The senior librarian, who spoke French, took me aside and told me: "The books in other languages ​​were all burnt."

At the end of the visit, we had two days of freedom. From the hotel terrace, where I went to take pictures from above, I could see the direction and length of the trip to get to the majestic Gothic Catholic Cathedral, built by French missionaries in the late 19th century. One morning I went out with the permission of our guide and went straight to the "stone house" (as it is called in Chinese). The cathedral was behind a closed gate. I took a picture of if with a portrait of Mao above the entrance. [2]

Next to the cathedral I saw a shelter where neighbourhood garbage was dumped. My brothers in Hong Kong explained to me that it was a mark of contempt for the foreign building. After the cathedral, I stopped for a bit at a bench in the nearby square near our hotel. I took pictures of some buildings and shops, and went back to the hotel. I went into my room and realised that one of my two cameras (black and white and colour slides) no longer had the plastic cover for the lens. I went down to the restaurant and a waiter handed me the cover on a tray and said, "You left it on the bench of the nearby square?" And I naively had thought that I was free!

In the hotel, I got up at two am to celebrate Mass on the table of the room: poignant masses in the silence of the night, thinking about all the Christians in prison or in Chinese labour and extermination camps ("laogai"). During the "Cultural Revolution", not a single church was open: it seemed that the Church in China had literally disappeared.

Persecution strengthens the faith

After Mao’s death (9 September 1976), the Church rose from its ashes. Around 1979-1980, Chinese Christians were beginning to write to Italian PIME missionaries (especially Fr Maringelli) who had been expelled from China 20-25 years earlier. [3] Their letters were very simple, by country people, who had experienced suffering, persecution, imprisonment, forced labour camps and came to write sentences like this, "I'm glad to have suffered for the faith in Jesus Christ."[4]

These people kept the faith under very difficult conditions: no churches, no priests, no Christian community, in the presence of a totalitarian state that for almost thirty years pursued all religions. In these letters, Chinese Christians did not ask for money but wanted sacred objects: rosary beads, gospels, images of Our Lady, medals, prayer books. "The Cultural Revolution destroyed all that was a reminder of God and the saints. Send us rosaries and holy pictures to hang on the walls, now that it is allowed to have these images in the home."

The revival of the Chinese Church was a real miracle. This is how I saw it in 1981. "Looking at the life of the Church around the world, maybe we can say that in our time there is no other sign of faith that is so exciting, so full of hope, as this unexpected rebirth of Christian life in China, which in fact was never extinguished, but lived in the secret of minds and families. This has occurred despite fierce and widespread persecution, which has few parallels in the ancient and modern history of the Church. Where are we going to look for other signs that show the grace of God, the mysterious but very concrete action of the Holy Spirit in human history, if not in the witness borne by Christians in China?"

I went back to China for a second time in the summer of 1980 together with Father Giancarlo Politi, a Hong Kong-based missionary, who spoke fluent Chinese. We visited a diocese where in 1973 I did not find any sign of a Christian presence. In Sheqi, we met the bishop and a priest, who spent 25 and 31 years in prison respectively. Many non-Christians were seeking religious instruction, they said. Unfortunately, there were no books or sacred signs; we could not give them an adequate Christian education. I wondered why there were so many requests for conversion, when the Church had so few priests and educational material (Gospels, images, prayer books, etc.). The bishop replied: "We do not preach, but the life of Christians proclaims the Gospel and an alternative society to the present one. Everyone knows who the Christians are. They saw us when we were persecuted, prosecuted and unfairly convicted. We never cursed anyone. Even in prisons and forced labor camps, Christians bearing witness converted many to the Gospel. And now that we're back in our homes, we do not seek revenge. We are not complaining for what we suffered. We help those who are in need of our help. I think that the requests for religious instruction and conversion comes from this."

I had with me a package of rosaries. I handed them out when visiting some Christian families and even priests and nuns. I believe I have never seen people so happy for a gift, and all I was giving them was a rosary.

Today works of charity are born in China

In October 2000, I went on my third visit to China. Visiting my confrere Fr Fernando Cagnin Canton (now Guangzhou). I had long conversations with him, during which I understood his very special missionary choice. [5] Since 1995, in fact, Fr Fernando had worked for Huiling, a Chinese NGO that has been involved with young people and adults with mental disabilities for 25 years. The founder is a charismatic woman, now in her sixties, Meng Weina. She is a former Red Guard who converted to Catholicism inspired by the example of Mother Teresa, whose name she took in 1998 when she was baptised.

Huiling began back in 1985, when a school was opened in Guangzhou for a hundred children with mental disabilities. In those years, China was still unfamiliar with NGOs, and Huiling (whose name means "spiritual wisdom") began to take also in teenagers over 16 with mental and non-mental disabilities. Fr Cagnin arrived in 1995. Until then, he had been a missionary in Hong Kong. He decided to devote himself to Huiling in keeping with PIME’s charism, whose members are called to proclaim the Gospel to non-Christians, bearing witness in "border contexts." Before he was ordained in PIME (1985), Fernando had worked in computer science, which was just taking off then, and so had acquired considerable technical skills, as well as passion and knowledge for this field. In 2000 I saw him in Huiling teaching the disabled to use computers, which he would get from Hong Kong where they had been discarded as old. He would dismount them and build new ones.

The beginning of his mission, which had a great success, came at a time when China was looking for computer experts. Computer coops of disabled people have emerged and always found profitable business. Huiling, which was a small entity, is now present in 26 cities of China's 17 provinces, with more than 1,500 residents in the centres and numerous innovative and far-reaching projects. Two other Hong Kong-based PIME missionaries, Fathers Mario Marazzi and Franco Bellati, joined Fernando and live in the disabled homes.

During my stay in Canton with Father Fernando I visited the Cathedral, the bishop’s residence of Canton and the convent with a community of nuns, behind the majestic and massive Gothic church built in 1890. I met 26 young nuns to whom I spoke (in English) of my experiences in various missions around the world and Fernando translated into Chinese (Cantonese). The young women listen willingly, and asked a few questions. Wearing black pants, white blouse, without a veil, hair cut short, with a small crucifix on their chest, these young women show how the Catholic community is re-emerging, rich in vocations and enthusiasm.

The sisters live in small communities in flats, amid the people, each exercising a profession, a job, interested in the poor, working with the parishes, making contact with women and families. I asked them: "Is it true that the government has summoned priests, nuns and catechists to meetings to indoctrinate you?". "Yes,” they said, “it is true. We have a meeting every day. They tell the story of the past, the crimes and the oppression of Western Christian people, the damage that missionaries and nuns did to the Chinese people. [6] But these lessons will end in a few days and everything will be as before. Even if there was some truth in what they say, our faith is based on love for Christ and on the concrete experience that faith and prayer help us live better." I never forgot such stories of faith and courage.


[1] After Mao’s death (9 September 1976), the violence of Chinese society became apparent. Massacres came to light, as did the stories of the tens of millions who starved, the systematic killing of lepers and other people with incurable diseases, the destruction of Tibetan culture and people, etc.

[2] Years later this picture ended up on the cover of a book by A.S. Lazzarotto, La Cina di Mao processa la Chiesa (Mao's China puts the Church on trial), Bologna: EMI, 2008.

[3] See my Lettere di cristiani dalla Cina (Letters of Christians from China), Bologna: Emi, 1981. In the preface, I wrote: "The pages that follow are a glimpse of rural Christian life, a simple story, fresh, moving, of how most poor Christians (those who were once called, almost contemptuously, "rice Christians") have maintained and propagated the faith in the most difficult and almost impossible conditions. Let's face it: this is a wonderful, miraculous fact that after thirty years of suffering and silence, as soon as there was a glimmer of freedom, suddenly all these priests, families and communities came out, united in faith and prayer, whom everyone thought had been liquidated and dispersed."

[4] Tragic and beautiful stories of witnesses of faith in extreme conditions can be found in G. Fazzini (ed), Il libro rosso dei martiri cinesi (The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs), Cinisello Balsamo: Edizioni San Paolo, 2008; and G. Fazzini (ed), In catene per Cristo. Diari di martiri nella Cina di Mao (In chains for Christ. Diaries of martyrs in Mao's China), Bologna: EMI, 2014.

[5] The full text of the interview can be found in www.gheddopiero.it. It was broadcast by Radio Maria in 2014.

[6] In 2000, John Paul II decided to canonise 120 martyrs in China (including our Holy Father Alberico Crescitelli), sparking strong protests from the Chinese government.

* Montedison was of the largest industrial holding companies.

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