05/23/2024, 17.31
Send to a friend

The past must be revisited, but the problem today for the Church in China is freedom

by Gianni Criveller

AsiaNews’s editorial director looks at the conferences that marked a hundred years since the Council of Shanghai. While acknowledging past mistakes, he insists that most missionaries were committed to the good of the Chinese people. The nationalism of the European powers of that time cannot be used to hide China’s nationalism today. When will a Second Chinese Council, free from political interference, be able to speak about the challenges of evangelisation in this land?

Milan (AsiaNews) – Tomorrow’s day of prayer for China, which Benedict XVI introduced with his Letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007, is even more significant this year in the wake of two conferences centred on the Church in China, one held on Monday (21 May) at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, and the other on Tuesday (21 May) at the Urbaniana University in Rome, both of which drew a large number of participants.

The starting point was the centenary of the Council of Shanghai (15 May-12 June 1924), which opened the way to the Church’s indigenisation (entrusting its leadership to the local clergy) and inculturation (expressing the faith through local cultural forms).

The two conferences had an academic orientation (especially in Milan) but also focused on Church diplomacy (in Rome) with the participation of Chinese bishops, priests, and scholars together with Italian colleagues. It is important to highlight the addresses by senior Holy See leaders, like Pope Francis, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, and the Pro-Prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelisation Card Luis A. Tagle.

Their measured words were aimed at pursuing the difficult dialogue with Chinese authorities, the actual recipients of the many hopes expressed at the two conferences. A third conference is slated for late June, at the Catholic University of Saint Joseph in Macao.

In the following commentary I would like to underscore some of the topics that emerged during the intense discussions during the two conferences, offering some thoughts that might serve the people of God in China and those who are committed to the good of the Church in that country.

Were foreign missionaries colonialists?

Some participants pointed out that the Council of Shanghai, thanks above all to the prophetic and determined work of the Apostolic Delegate Celso Costantini, corrected the critical situation in which the missions found themselves, whereby, to many, they seemed like foreign enclaves. Indeed, the delay in localisation was unfortunately noted by many, starting with Pope Benedict XV (1919) and ten years later by our Blessed Paolo Manna, then PIME Superior General.

Quite a few missionaries, children of their age, related to the faithful in a paradoxical way. Once I asked Card John Tong of Hong Kong for an actual example of the way missionaries exhibited a sense of superiority over the Chinese faithful and priests. He replied: "The missionaries in China ate in a different refectory from that of the Chinese clergy". 

It made me think of the Marquis, successor of Don Rodrigo, in chapter 38 of The Betrothed, the great novel by Alessandro Manzoni.

The Marquis is a good person, generous enough to invite the bride and groom to his palace and even to serve them at the table. But he relegated the newlyweds to the refectory, while he, the Marquis, secluded himself in the dining room with Don Abbondio. Manzoni notes that, in terms of humility, the nobleman “had just so much of it as to take a lower place than these worthy peasants, but not enough to associate with them as an equal.”

This is the paradox. The missionaries suffered from a rather peculiar syndrome. They were willing to give their lives for the Chinese, but they did not hold them in high esteem enough to let them rule at home and sit by their side, as brothers with equal dignity.

This said, it is unfair to reduce the history of the missions from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century to colonialism and imperialism. Costantini himself could not have accepted the denigration of the missionary movement, as if it were hostile to the Chinese people or wanted to exploit them for colonialist aims.

Unfortunately, such negative attitudes are used as justification for China’s current religious policy; and have occasionally been heard, albeit in a nuanced way, in some of the speeches given at the hitherto mentioned conferences. While some missionaries were nationalistic, many hoped for the end of French tutelage already in the 19th century, and a direct relationship with Chinese authorities to ensure security, that is, freedom for the faithful and missionaries.

I have read thousands of letters by PIME missionaries in China. They were not undertaking the mission – a choice that had no return ticket – to support their own country’s colonialism, but rather to evangelise and “save souls”. The missionaries not only did not support the policy of their governments, but actually detested it.

In a letter from China, Saint Alberico Crescitelli, a PIME martyr, solemnly cursed the Italian anti-clerical government. The first two PIME bishops in China, Timoleone Raimondi (Hong Kong and Guandong) and Simeone Volonteri (Henan), worked tirelessly, writing appeals to the Holy See, to free the missions from imperialist chains at least 50 years before the Council of Shanghai.

Fr Francesco Giulianelli, a missionary with PIME (then called the Roman Seminary), led a Vatican embassy to Beijing in 1885 seeking an agreement with Chinese authorities. An agreement was reached and, as Card Parolin noted in his speech at the conference in Rome, the Holy See appointed Archbishop Antonio Agliardi as its delegate to China.

Under threat from the anticlerical government of France, which had colonialist aims in China, Pope Leo XIII was forced to reverse his decision even though it had already been published in L'Osservatore Romano on 12 August 1886. Famous missionaries like Joseph Gabet (from France), Antoine Cotta (from the United States), Vincent Lebbe (from Belgium), the aforementioned Paolo Manna (from Italy), and many others also spoke out against colonial tutelage and in favour of localisation.

Missionaries as agents of modernity

Most missionaries were sincerely and generously committed to the good of the Chinese people and were agents of social progress. They built not only churches, but also provided educational and health services open to everyone, setting up clinics, hospitals, and orphanages that saved the lives of many people.

Great efforts were made to save girls and empower young women, opposing the practice of foot binding. Thanks to women's congregations, many girls and young women were offered an education and the possibility of life choices outside of family ties, in which young women were often forced to make choices contrary to their will.

Missionaries were a vehicle of modernity, bringing new ideas and knowledge, about science and democracy, which became the rallying cry of the May Fourth (1919) student movement, introduced to China in schools and colleges founded by Christian missionaries.

The missionaries were, consciously or unconsciously, agents of interculturality, which greatly benefited the Chinese people beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church, fostering scientific and democratic progress. Let me repeat! Reducing a century of missionary activity to an episode of colonialism is but a convenient ideological reinterpretation to justify illiberal political positions.

It does not seem to us a good argument to justify China’s current religious policy by unilaterally emphasising past mistakes, not to mention the campaigns of religious persecution, which did occur, causing untold suffering to Chinese Catholic communities, whose only fault was to be part of a universal faith.

An indispensable issue: freedom

As noted, missionaries were children of their age. Are we not as well? What will be said about us a hundred years from now? Will they say that we have been far too accommodating to serious violations of the freedom of the Chinese people and of the human and religious rights of so many believers of various religions? As Fr Manna wrote, Western colonialist nationalism was an unbearable chain on the freedom of the Church.

Far from protecting the mission, it stifled it. Now it is no longer the nationalism of European powers that threatens the freedom of the Church in China, but rather the nationalism inculcated by the country’s political authorities through the practice of sinicisation. The religious policy inspired by it rules in an invasive and pervasive way every aspect of the life of ecclesial communities and organisations.

The two conferences were not the place to speak out against violations, but rather a venue to meet, talk, and take steps together to find a way that leads to the improvement in the main issues. Really good things were said and hopefully they will be implemented.

But we commentators, who do not have any diplomatic role but will not fail in our ecclesial responsibility, cannot but see this simple fact: the fundamental problem of the Church in China today is her freedom – freedom, or emancipation, not from past nationalisms but from the present.

Some speakers, both Italian and Chinese, commendably suggested that today we cannot emphasise only the theme of localism; instead, we must also stress the universal character of the Catholic Church. She does not exist unless both dimensions are held together.

Faith in the Gospel is not alien to any people or culture, but no local Church can do without the universal Church and the successor of Peter. The turning point of the Council of Shanghai was made possible thanks to the interventions of two popes, Benedict XV and Pius XI, and the full pontifical mandate entrusted to Celso Costantini. Without the action of the Roman pontiffs, the Church in China would be less Chinese and less Catholic. And this is all the truer today.

When will a Second Chinese Council take place? A proposal for an agenda

It strikes me that the Council of Shanghai was called the "First Chinese Council". When, then, will there be a Second Chinese Council? There is a great need for it. This council would fit with the synodal spirit that Pope Francis wants for the Church today, including the participation of the people of God in the variety of their charisms and ministries, together with the bishops and the pope.

A council would still face many urgent and open challenges if it was free from political interference. But only this way would it have the freedom, unity, and serenity necessary to initiate a proper theological and pastoral reflection to meet the challenges of evangelising in the post-modern age, enabled to enhance China’s rich cultural traditions.

Let me make a few suggestions for the possible agenda of a Second Chinese Council. There is still no creative blending of Chinese culture and the liturgy.  Ways to help the faithful express their faith through suitable cultural practices and forms of worship are in short supply.

Preparing the faithful in independent, Church-run groups, schools, and movements is not currently possible. Training women religious and priests in accordance with today’s sensitivities is urgent, including having the Church pay attention to candidates’ emotional and psychological needs.

Large-scale, rural-to-urban migration in the country has generated a certain gap between rural and urban Catholicism. The former, which tends to be traditional and devotional, often cannot cope with the disorientation generated by moving away from one's own Catholic village.

Christians in the cities are more open to the demands of modernity, and attentive to the spiritual dimension of life in crowded metropolises, but they do not always go along with their Catholic brothers and sisters who come from villages in distant provinces.

The laity must become more involved in evangelisation, as well as social outreach, charity work, and educational activity. As is the case around the world, the fragility of young people is an issue that needs urgent action, especially since supporting an aging population is falling on their shoulders. A programme of evangelisation is also needed for many Chinese living abroad, where the opportunities to encounter the Christian faith are much greater.

I would like to conclude by turning to Mary Help of Christians, who is venerated by Chinese Catholics at the Shrine of Sheshan (Shanghai). To her we entrust peace in China and the world, echoing Pope Francis’s video message to the Conference two days ago.

“Those who follow Jesus love peace,” the pontiff said, and they “stand together with all those who work for peace, at a time when we see inhuman forces at work that seem to want to hasten the end of the world.”


Send to a friend
Printable version
See also
When the Church acts, it is to defend life, the family and religious freedom
Asian Churches call for common solutions to immigration problems By Santosh Digal
Official gets death penalty for graft and embezzlement in pension fund scandal
Pope: love defends the common good, not power
18/03/2022 18:24
Xi Jinping’s visit in Nur-Sultan highlights China’s regional leadership
09/09/2022 13:44


Subscribe to Asia News updates or change your preferences

Subscribe now
“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”