04/08/2008, 00.00
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From Milan to Hong Kong, 150 years of mission

by p. Gianni Criveller
The community that is the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) is inviting readers to learn from the lives of the many missionaries who preached the Gospel in Hong Kong, through an illustrated book, published in both English and Chinese, and compiled by Father Gianni Criveller. Here we anticipate some of its content and reflections.

The itinerant missionaries

The period of the itinerant missionaries is probably the most fascinating of all. For several decades our missionaries were engaged in what was an extremely difficult, itinerant missionary life in the districts of China that, in the 19th century, were part of the Hong Kong Vicariate.

We must remember that until 1898, the New Territories were part of the Hong Kong mission, but not the British colony. Our missionaries also worked in the three, rather large districts of Guangdong province, Po On, Way Young and Hoi Fungi, which were under Chinese rule.

To go into these territories and away from British protection was a somewhat adventurous, challenging and risky trip. Our missionaries moved from village to village, where they were sometimes welcomed and sometimes driven away. Everywhere, they put effort into gathering small groups of believers, sometimes by simply getting up and preaching on the streets or in the public squares.

The missionaries were always accompanied by Chinese priests or catechists, whose presence was of capital importance, although missionary accounts of the past do not always acknowledge their contribution.

They really were the ones who created the large network of connections that allowed the itinerant mission to bear fruit. The contribution of local priests and catechists has been an essential element and we need to realise that the members of PIME never really started their mission from scratch.

The scientific apostolate

The Catholic mission outreach in China has been characterised by the contributions of numerous missionary-scientists. But the PIME displayed a clear preference for the direct apostolate rather than engagement in cultural or scientific studies. In Hong Kong, PIME has only had two notable exceptions. The first was Father Simeone Volonteri, who was here from 1859 to 1870 and founded the mission in Henan in 1870. He charted the first, much appreciated maps of Hong Kong and its surrounding districts.

The other was Father Raffaello Maglioni, who spent from 1928-1953 in the province. He worked in Hoi Fung during the 1930s and 1940s and is the only PIME missionary worthy of the name of missionary-scientist. He made important archaeological surveys and his collection was donated by Bishop Lorenzo Bianchi to the Hong Kong government. It can be viewed in the Hong Kong Museum of History.

Father Maglioni was a self-taught man and was moved by a keen passion. He also had a special talent for languages. He compiled the first dictionary of the Hoklos dialect, which is spoken in the Hoi Fung district. His library of over 1,000 valuable books has also been donated to the government and is in the history museum as well.

However, we must remember that both of these priests were first of all missionaries, engaged in traditional apostolates. Their scientific work was considered to be inspired out of their personal passion rather than PIME policy. The society never promoted the missionary-scientist as, for example, the Jesuits did in the 17th century.

One of the consequences of such a policy is that a Catholic university was never founded in a city of such strategic importance as Hong Kong. In my opinion, that lack is being felt acutely today.

Archives are fascinating

In compiling the book I had to go through hundreds of letters and documents. The archives provide riveting reading and are fascinating places. They are a gold mine of information and a great source of surprise. There are thousands of letters from missionaries, which help to dismantle the ideological interpretation of missionary activity, which is still clung to in some quarters.

In much historical writing, missionaries are described as agents of imperialism. However, the letters stored in the archives show a group of people who cast themselves in a totally opposite light. They clearly indicate that the missionary motivation was a religious one and their activities reflect this as well.

It is enough to read them to realise this. It is not fair to attribute intentions to people that they never expressed themselves. I maintain that we must allow the missionaries the opportunity to speak for themselves.

In addition, many of the letters reveal hidden suffering in the face of dramatic situations in the midst of conflict. The archives hold the secrets of unknown missionaries and even those who failed. During my hours with their memoirs, I learned to respect and love them. They suffered, but showed their generosity by spending their lives in mission lands.

When we, as believers, look back at historical events, we see that history is not only made by those who were successful. Many missionaries worked quietly and fruitfully without feeling the need to write, to make themselves known or to be talked about. In reconstructing history, we also need to take this into account. It is also necessary to remember that while the letters say a lot, they do not say everything.

Commitment to China

Our community pays a great deal of attention to mainland China, where some of the most important history of the institute was played out. By the 1980s, our confreres had begun to resume contact with people in the areas of our former mission. There were five dioceses, including the Hong Kong extension in Guangdong, in three provinces. The current intention is to assist the local Churches to regain their strength.

Among the many who have been part of this contact work, I would like acknowledge the dedication and generosity of spirit of Father Luciano Aletta, who, in spite of his advanced age, organised about 20 churches in Hoi Fung, Guangdong, where he had been stationed and been imprisoned with Bishop Lorenzo Bianchi, to be repaired or reconstructed.

I also want to single out Father Angelo Lazzarotto, Father Giancarlo Politi and Father Sergio Ticozzi, who have worked hard over the past three decades to get to know and understand the situation of the Church all over China. They have become experts and are sought-out and listened to. Father Lazzarotto also played an important part in the foundation of the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong in 1980.

In later days, other PIME missionaries have been part of the operation of this centre, which is an important means through which the diocese of Hong Kong carries out its role as a bridge- and sister-Church with China.

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