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Gerard O’ConnellMay 20, 2024
Pope Francis looks at a painted image of the Great Wall of China during his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican May 1, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The Pontifical Urban University in Rome will host an important international conference on May 21 to reflect on the legacy of the first Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in China (Primum Concilium Sinese), which was held in Shanghai in 1924. The council made important decisions for the life of the church in China and opened the doors to the modern inculturation of the Christian message and the indigenization of the clergy there.

Pope Francis will send a video message to the conference, and keynote speakers include Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Antonio Luis Tagle, the pro-prefect of the Dicastery for the Evangelization of Peoples, and the Most Rev. Joseph Shen Bin, the bishop of Shanghai, China’s largest diocese. The pope recognized him as bishop of the diocese in July 2023, three months after Chinese authorities installed him in that diocese in violation of the historic 2018 Sino-Vatican agreement. Academics and researchers from the People’s Republic of China will also speak, including Professors Zheng Xiaoyun and Liu Guopeng of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The Pontifical Urban University (known colloquially to American Catholics as “the Urbaniana”) conference is the second and the most significant of three conferences being held this year on this watershed council. The first was held at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan on May 20, and the third will be held at the University of Saint Joseph in Macau, a special administrative region of China, at the end of June. No conference or commemoration of the council is planned to be held in mainland China.

To understand the significance of that first council of the church in China, it is necessary to go back in history, and for this, I draw on several scholarly works.

From dynasty to nation

One can begin with the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), which followed the first Opium War, in which the British defeated the Chinese; it is the first of what the Chinese call “unequal treaties” between China and foreign imperialist powers. These international treaties granted legal, economic and social rights and privileges to not only foreign merchants but also Christian missionaries. China ceded the territory of Hong Kong to Britain and had to open five treaty ports, including Shanghai, to foreign influence.

“Catholics now had to share the mission field with Protestant missionaries, largely from Great Britain and increasingly from the United States,” Paul P. Mariani, S.J., the Edmund Campion, S.J. Professor at Santa Clara University, explains in his book Church Militant: Bishop Kung and Catholic Resistance in Communist Shanghai (Harvard University Press, 2011).

France soon took on the role of protector of the Catholic missions (the Portuguese had that role in the early phase of the missions) and signed a treaty with the Chinese emperor in 1846 that allowed Chinese citizens to profess Catholicism, ordered the restitution of church properties and envisaged the punishment of officials who persecuted Catholics. The second Opium War led to the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858, which, among other things, revoked all remaining anti-Christian legislation.

A decade later, Father Mariani writes, “at Vatican Council I (1869-1870), the vicars apostolic of China—not one of them Chinese—voted for the following: continued French protection, opposition to a native Chinese hierarchy, and no ambassador from the Vatican to China.”

By 1900, the Catholic population in China had grown to 741,562, “a seven-fold increase in the course of the 19th century. There were 900 foreign male missionaries and 470 Chinese priests,” Father Mariani writes. But then came the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-foreign, anti-imperialist and anti-Christian uprising between 1899 and 1901 that ravaged churches in northern China. Over 30 Christians (both Catholic and Protestant), five bishops, 40 priests and many religious sisters were killed. Yet Shanghai and the rest of the south were largely unscathed. The rebellion was crushed by a coalition of eight nations, including Great Britain and the United States, and the church rebounded quickly. “Once again the church was surviving persecution and thriving in peacetime,” Father Mariani writes.

By the beginning of the 1900s, however, Asian nationalism was on the rise, and in 1911, Han nationalists overthrew the Qing Dynasty. “Two thousand years of dynastic rule abruptly ended,” Father Mariani writes, “and some astute church leaders realized that it would be imprudent to treat rising nationalism as an enemy.”

Moreover, he writes, “the church’s de facto position of limiting Chinese leadership in the church was proving embarrassing, especially given the sharp rise—both in quantity and quality—of the native clergy” in the early 20th century. There were 521 Catholic priests in China in 1910, 963 in 1920 and 1,500 in 1930, and yet in the early 1920s, all 96 church jurisdictions were led by foreigners, some of whom did not even know the creed in Chinese. “This much was clear: if the church was to survive in China, it needed to devolve power to the Chinese,” Father Mariani writes.

Even more significantly, “[t]he close connections existing between the Christian mission and the Western Colonial powers have been very detrimental to the image of Christianity in China and have led to strong anti-Christian feelings,” Georg Evers writes in his book The Churches in Asia. “For many years the attempts of the Holy See to establish direct diplomatic relations with China were thwarted, because France insisted on continuing its function as protector of all Catholic missionaries in China.”

A new direction

Benedict XV, who was pope from 1914 to 1922, launched a comprehensive reorientation of the church’s mission work. Rome’s “vigorous approach” was inspired by, among others, two Vincentian missionary priests in China, Antoine Cotta (1872-1957) and Vincent Lebbe (1877-1940), who strongly advocated “giving greater responsibility to the Chinese priests, and preparing them for the episcopacy,” Evers writes. The superior general of the Society of Jesus, Wlodzimierz Ledóchowski, S.J. (1866-1942), also encouraged the mission superiors in China, in a letter on Aug. 15, 1918, “to develop the Chinese clergy, secular as well as religious, on an equal footing with the foreign missionaries and to prepare them to hold higher offices,” Sergio Ticozzi, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, writes in History of the Formation of the Native Catholic Clergy in China.

Pope Benedict XV took up these ideas in his encyclical letter “Maximum Illud,”published on Nov. 30, 1919, with an eye especially to the situation of the church in China. He reaffirmed that Christ “is not foreign to any nation” and that becoming a Christian does not imply abandoning loyalty to one’s people and “submitting to the pretensions and domination of a foreign power.” He emphasized “the need to overcome European nationalism and the promotion of indigenous clergy,” Ticozzi writes.

“[T]he local clergy is not to be trained merely to perform the humbler duties of ministry, acting as assistants to foreign priests,” Benedict XV wrote. “On the contrary, they must take up God’s work as equals, so that some day they will be able to enter upon the spiritual leadership of their people.” To advance in this direction, the pope instructed the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (today the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) to establish seminaries for both individual regions and groups of dioceses.

Benedict XV’s reforms, however, encountered opposition from the foreign missionary community, Ticozzi notes. Nevertheless, his successor, Pius XI, continued on the path of reform. He put under the congregation’s supervision the Pontifical Society of St. Peter the Apostle, whose purpose was fostering the formation of native priests and the foundation of seminaries.

Finally, in 1922, Pope Pius XI established an apostolic delegation of the Holy See to China and appointed the Italian archbishop, Celso Costantini, as his first delegate there. His goal was to implement “Maximum Illud.” Ticozzi summarizes his task: “To reduce tension between the foreign and local clergy, to entrust mission territories to the leadership of the Chinese clergy, and to end the civil protectorate [of France] over the Catholic Missions.” He said the archbishop tried to throw off “the Westernizing tendencies” and to overcome “a congregation centered concern” by religious orders and congregations on the basis of a territory being given exclusively to a religious order.

According to Evers, Archbishop Constantini became a strong advocate of the movement within the local church in China for the consecration of indigenous bishops. He was in favor of demolishing what he called “the Latin wall,” that is, replacing the use of Latin as the liturgical language with Chinese. He contributed much to the development of indigenous Chinese Christian art by recommending young Chinese artists so their work found acceptance in the church.

In December 1923, Archbishop Constantini promoted two Chinese priests to leadership positions: the Franciscan Odoric Chen Hede to be prefect apostolic of Puqi, Hubei, and, in April 1924, the Vincentian Melchior Sun Dezhen as prefect apostolic of Anguo, Hebei. Importantly, he convened the first Council of the Church in China to be held at Xujiahui, Shanghai, from May 14 to June 12, 1924. It brought together all the vicars apostolic in China—all the bishops were foreign missionaries—and all the prefects apostolic.

Two years later, on Feb. 26, 1926, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical, “Rerum Ecclesiae,” which together with Benedict XV’s “Maximum Illud,” may be considered as the Magna Carta of the formation of native clergy and indigenous churches: It put Chinese clergy on an equal footing with European clergy in the China mission, opening the way for them to assume leadership positions.

Later that year, Archbishop Constantini’s efforts bore fruit when Pius XI ordained six Chinese priests (including one Jesuit, Simon Zhu Kaimin) as bishops in a four-hour ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 28, 1926. It was the beginning of the indigenization of the Chinese hierarchy. Up until then, the only other indigenous Chinese priest to have been ordained bishop in China was the Dominican Lo Wen-Taso (1616-91).

Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, a priest of the Paris Foreign Missions society, in his book, Christians in China, A.D. 600 to 2000, describes the enthusiasm with which the six were feted on their way to Rome to receive the red hat, and how Mussolini put a special train at their disposal to bring them from Naples, where they arrived by ship, to Rome. After the festivities in Rome, they visited various European countries and then went to the United States, and from there to Manila, Singapore and Colombo (in Sri Lanka). Charbonnier writes that their ordination as bishops “marked an important new stage in the life of the church.”

Twenty years later, Pope Pius XII, following his predecessors’ path, appointed many more Chinese bishops and also created the first Chinese cardinal, Thomas Tien Ken-sin, S.V.D., archbishop of Peking, at the consistory on Feb. 18, 1946. The cardinal was expelled from China in 1951 but voted in the conclave of 1958 that elected John XXIII and in the 1963 conclave that elected Paul VI.

At that date, there were 146 bishops in China, of whom 35 were Chinese. There were also 1,184 Chinese priests and 3,059 Catholic foreign missionaries, of whom 1,723 were priests and 1,088 sisters and brothers.

As a result of these reforms and missionary efforts, by 1948 the number of Catholics in the mainland had grown to more than three million. Today that number has risen to around 12 million Catholics, while all the bishops are now in union with the pope.

Tomorrow’s conference, titled “100 years since the Concilium Sinense: Between history and present,” will reflect on that milestone in the history not only of the church in China but also of the universal church.

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