05/21/2024, 22.04
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Shen Bin's read on Shanghai Council and Sinicization

by Giorgio Bernardelli

The bishop of Shanghai is in Rome for the conference marking the centennial of the first meeting of all Chinese bishops. The Church is one, but its development in China must "be in line" with the "great rebirth of the Chinese nation”. Communion with the pontiff is “the best guarantee of a faith freed from external political interests,” said Card Parolin. “There may be misunderstandings, but [they are] never half-hearted with respect to the Church's journey in China.”

Rome (AsiaNews) – This year marks one hundred years since the Council of Shanghai, the first Plenary Council of the Church in China. For the occasion, the Pontifical Urbaniana University in cooperation with the Agenzia Fides organised a conference, which was held today, to highlight the historic event a century ago, but also to look at today's challenges, starting with the notion of "sinicisation" of religions, an issue central to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s religious policy.

Pope Francis also underlined the importance of the council in 1924, which brought together the bishops and apostolic prefects present in China at the time, in a video message released today.

A lot of curiosity surrounded the first official visit in Rome of the current bishop of Shanghai, Mgr Joseph Shen Bin, at the centre of tensions last year after Chinese authorities unilaterally transferred him to China's foremost episcopal see, a situation later settled by Pope Francis’s decision to appoint him as well.

Bishop Shen was joined by important academics and Church officials from the People's Republic of China, who brought their vision of what happened a century ago, as well as their views about the relationship between the "inculturation" of the faith promoted by the doctrine of the Church and “sinicisation”, processes seen as two circles that overlap but also diverge.

This also comes with the need for dialogue in the perspective of fraternity to avoid the risk of fuelling "new self-referential closures”, as Card Luis Antonio Tagle, pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelisation, put it this evening in his conclusion.

“The stories of our Chinese brothers and sisters have something important to show to the universal Church," Card Tagle said. “There may be misunderstandings, but [they are] never half-hearted with respect to the Church's journey in China.”

In his address, Bishop Shen Bin mentioned the awareness a century ago of the need for the Church to distance herself from the colonial “patronage" of China, but also the resistance encountered in that process.

He noted that one of the first six Chinese bishops ordained by Pius XI in 1926 was "Bishop Zhu Kaimin, of the Diocese of Haimen, Jiangsu province (where he served as bishop before his transfer to Shanghai)’” where we “benefited very early from the Council of Shanghai.” Yet, that change "was not immediate and radical in the Church in China" because of strong resistance.

“[A]t the time of the founding of the People's Republic of China, only 29 of 137 Chinese dioceses had Chinese bishops and only three of 20 archbishops were Chinese. The Catholic Church in China had not truly freed herself from foreign powers to become an enterprise led by Chinese Christians and had not yet succeeded in shedding the label of ‘foreign religion’.”

What does the experience of the Council of Shanghai say to the Church in China today? For the bishop of Shanghai, being “faithful to the Gospel of Christ” is crucial to the development of the Church in China.

Bishop Shen noted that “Since the founding of the new China in 1949, the Church in China has always remained faithful to its Catholic faith, although it has made great efforts to constantly adapt to the new political system.”

In his view, “The Chinese government's religious freedom policy has no interest in changing the Catholic faith,” and he hopes “that the Catholic clergy and faithful will defend the interests of the Chinese people and free themselves from the control of foreign powers.”

Even at the time of the founding of the Patriotic Association, the Party expressed “understanding of the need for Chinese Catholics to be in communion with Rome in spiritual matters,” on condition “that they do not go against the interests of the Chinese people, that they do not violate China's sovereignty and that the Vatican modifies its policy of hostility towards China.”

Today, Article 4 of the statute of the Council of Chinese Bishops, expressly states that it is “founded on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, in the spirit that the Church is one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic, and in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council”. At the same time, “the development of the Church in China must be seen from a Chinese perspective.”

In citing the Gospel, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God what is God's," Bishop Shen noted that the Western model of church-state relations brought problems to China’s Catholic community in the 20th century.

“[S]ome missionaries had a strong sense of European cultural superiority and even intended to use the Christian religion to change Chinese society and culture, which many Chinese inevitably opposed and even hated”.

For the bishop of Shanghai, healing this rift today means accepting that the development of the Church in China must "be in line" with the "great rebirth of the Chinese nation in a comprehensive manner with Chinese-style modernization,” carried out by the government.

The Catholic Church in China “must move in the same direction, following a path of Sinicisation that is in line with today's Chinese society and culture. [. . .] We often say that faith has no borders, but believers have their own homeland and their own culture.”

Immersion in traditional Chinese culture, which the Council of Shanghai planned for but failed to implement, also goes in that direction. To reach that goal, the Church needs “to explore the use of traditional Chinese culture in expressing the Catholic faith; support the adoption of traditional Chinese styles in church architecture, art and music, and promote the Sinicisation of church art; integrating elements of traditional Chinese culture into church liturgy, etc.”

Speaking at the conference, Cardinal Secretary of State Piero Parolin turned to the prophetic vision brought forth in 1924 by the then apostolic delegate, Archbishop Celso Costantini, who convened and guided the Council of Shanghai, noting a rising awareness in the Catholic Church of the “persistent, and then excessive, dependence on the foreign component of the mission”, which found an echo in Benedict XV’s Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud in 1919.

“The intention of the Apostolic Delegate – as well as ours today – was certainly not to institute a trial against history. With balance, he recognised the merit of many foreign missionaries who, with a sense of true charity and dedication, brought the Gospel to China and worked for the social development of this people,” Card Parolin explained. “However, he also recognised that ‘human aid’ from foreign powers [. . .] also had a passive moral weight to the economy of evangelisation”.

The Vatican Secretary of State acknowledged that the Council of Shanghai faced stiff resistance. Given the reproaches, Archbishop Costantini always reacted “with foresight” realising that Maximum Illud would suffer the same fate as Rerum Novarum, “which initially did not find favour in certain old Catholic circles”, but eventually, “became the venerated and undisputed magna carta of Christian sociology” of today.

Parolin also stressed the very close link between the inculturation of the Church in China, the indigenisation of the clergy, and the bond with the successor of Peter. It is no coincidence, he noted, that Pius XI wanted the first Chinese bishops to be ordained in Rome in St Peter's. Such “communion was precisely the best guarantee of a faith freed from external political interests and firmly anchored in local culture and society”.

Archbishop Costantini’s other goal went in the same direction. Although ultimately unsuccessful, he tried to engage the country’s authorities in direct dialogue, without intermediation from other powers. In his intentions, the Vatican Secretary of State noted, this was the other side of the same effort of inculturation.

This raises questions about the relationship between the Holy See and the Chinese government today. After the 2018 Agreement on episcopal appointments, which is up for a third renewal next autumn, other questions remain open, despite its challenging implementation.

“It is always hard to make predictions," Card Parolin said, in response to a reporter’s question. “For a long time now, we had hoped to have a stable presence in China, even if it might not initially take the form of pontifical representation, an apostolic nunciature.

“Our aim is to increase and deepen our contacts, which can also take a different form.” Even the "recognition of the bishops' conferences is the subject of discussion, and include all Chinese bishops. But we are still working on this topic.”

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