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Gerard O’ConnellMay 24, 2024
China's flag is seen as Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the VaticanIn this file photo, China's flag is seen as Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican June 15, 2016. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

An international conference at the Vatican on May 21 recognized the 100th anniversary of the first plenary council of the Catholic Church in China—and identified some key challenges the church faces in China today. Keynote speakers at the conference noted that the 1924 plenary council in Shanghai was a turning point in the history of Chinese Catholicism, one that has important lessons for the sometimes-fraught relationship between the Vatican and the Chinese government.

Pope Francis spoke at the beginning by video conference, with a statue of Our Lady of Sheshan at his side. He hailed the historic 1924 council “as an important step in the path of the Catholic Church in China” and said the council fathers “lived an authentically synodal experience and made important decisions together. The Holy Spirit brought them together, allowed harmony to grow among them, led them along paths that many would not have imagined, even overcoming perplexities and resistance.”

He recalled that participants in the 1924 council all came “from distant countries,” and before the council “many among them were not ready to consider the opportunity of entrusting the leadership of the dioceses to priests and bishops born in China.” But when they gathered at the council, “they all made an authentic synodal journey and signed provisions that opened up new paths so that the Catholic Church in China could also increasingly have a Chinese face.”

Pope Francis recalled that the council fathers followed the path pioneered some 300 years earlier by Matteo Ricci, S.J., the Italian Jesuit missionary known in China as Li Madou, who worked in China from 1582 to 1610 and is buried in Beijing.

He paid tribute to “the important contribution” made by the Italian Archbishop Celso Costantini, the first papal delegate to China, who, by decision of Pope Pius XI, organized and presided over the council, and reaffirmed that the church’s mission was “to evangelize, not to colonize.” Thanks to his work, the pope said, “the communion between the Holy See and the church in China manifested its fruits, fruits of good for all the Chinese people.”

“The council of Shanghai did not only serve to move beyond the erroneous approaches that had prevailed in previous times,” Pope Francis said. “It was not a question of ‘changing strategy’ but of following paths that best conformed to the nature of the church and her mission.” The council fathers, he said, “trusting only in the grace of Christ Himself, and in His attraction, looked to the future. And their future is our present.”

Chinese Catholics “bear witness to their faith through works of mercy and charity, and in their witness, they give a real contribution to the harmony of social coexistence, to the building of the common home,” Pope Francis said. “Those who follow Jesus love peace and find themselves together with all those who work for peace, in a time in which we see inhuman forces at work that seem to want to accelerate the end of the world.”

When the 1924 council finished, Francis said, the participants went on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Sheshan near Shanghai. He recalled that Pope Benedict XVI established May 24 as the day when Catholics worldwide pray for the church in China. Pope Francis concluded by stretching out his hand to touch the statue of Our Lady of Sheshan, and said: “I, too, ideally climb the hill of Sheshan, and let us all together entrust to Mary, help of Christians, our brothers and sisters in the faith who are in China, all the Chinese people, and all our poor world, asking for her intercession, so that peace may always win everywhere. Mary, help of Christians, Our Lady of Sheshan, pray for us!”

At the conference’s morning session, moderated by Marta Zhao Nan, the head of the Chinese section of Fides, the Vatican missionary news agency, there was great interest in what Joseph Shen Bin, the bishop of Shanghai, and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, would say about the challenges facing the church in China and future Sino-Vatican relations.

Bishop Shen Bin, the president of the Council of Chinese Bishops—a body not recognized by the Holy See because it does not include bishops from the “underground” church—spoke first. He said they had come together “to remember the past and look to the future, to dialogue and to discuss the mission that Jesus Christ has entrusted to us in our time.” He paid tribute to the “prophetic audacity and exceptional talent” of Archbishop Costantini, who promoted the inculturation of the Gospel in China despite many obstacles.

Recalling the history of the foreign intervention in Chinese affairs beginning in the 19th century, Bishop Shen Bin noted that the church in China benefited from many privileges following the “unequal treaties” signed between the Qing government and Western powers. This may have benefited the church in the short term, he said. “Gradually,” however, “as the nationalist sentiment of the Chinese people increased, the conflict between the church and the people intensified, and the people’s hatred of the Catholic Church gradually worsened, with periodic clashes.”

In this process, Bishop Shen Bin said, “the Holy See became aware of the dangers linked to the church’s ties with Western powers and ‘patronage’ and strove to create a new evangelical horizon and to redefine the political and cultural relations of the church with the countries or regions in which it was present.”

When the People’s Republic of China was founded on Oct. 1, 1949, only 29 of 139 dioceses had Chinese bishops, and only three of the 20 archbishops were Chinese. By that date, Bishop Shen Bin said, “the Catholic Church in China had not truly freed itself from foreign powers to become a work led by Chinese Christians and had not yet succeeded in shedding the label of ‘foreign religion.’”

“Retracing history is helpful in looking to the future,” he said,” in discerning the direction in which God’s Holy Spirit is leading the church in China in this new historical period.”

“The development of the church in China must be in line with today’s China,” he said. “Today, the Chinese people are carrying out the great rebirth of the Chinese nation in a comprehensive manner with Chinese-style modernization, and the Catholic Church in China must move in the same direction, following a path of Sinicization that is in line with today’s Chinese society and culture.”

He said, “We call on Chinese priests and faithful to love their country and their church and to closely link the development of the church with the well-being of the people.” He recalled that “Pope Francis has also often emphasized that being a good Christian is not only not incompatible with being a good citizen but is an integral part of it.”

“The Chinese Catholic Church will continue to follow the teaching of the apostle Paul,” he said, and continue “the path of Sinicization of the Church started by missionaries like Matteo Ricci” and “the direction defined by the Synod of Shanghai regarding the construction of the indigenous church.” He concluded, “We will continue to build the Church in China as a holy and Catholic Church, in line with God’s will, which accepts China’s excellent traditional cultural heritage, and is well received in today’s Chinese society.”

In his own remarks, Cardinal Parolin emphasized that the 1924 Chinese assembly “served as a model for many other mission countries,” and has relevance for the church today as it engages in the process of synodality. He noted that Archbishop Costantini had understood that the inculturation of the Catholic faith and the planting of the church in China requires “the link to the successor of Peter.” He said, “It is no coincidence that the ordination of the first Chinese bishops, who would initiate the indigenous apostolic hierarchy, took place in the Vatican basilica at the hands of the Supreme Pontiff himself.” That act, he said, “made visible at the same time how the pope himself was the guarantee of a fruitful indigenization of the church in China and, more generally, of the authentic inculturation of his faith.”

Archbishop Costantini understood, Cardinal Parolin said, that “in China, distinguishing missionary work from international politics was in reality the only way to protect it and restore its authenticity and fruitfulness: to this end, it was therefore essential that the Holy See and the Chinese government learn to dialogue with each other directly, without intermediaries and in a necessary work of reciprocal discovery. Only in this way can reciprocal prejudices be overcome, in particular those which concern the supposed political nature of Catholic missionary activity.”

After the morning session, Cardinal Parolin and the Bishop of Shanghai spoke together—first in full view of the cameras, and then privately. It appears to be the first time that they have sat down together. Speaking to journalists at the conference, Cardinal Parolin emphasized that the Holy See would like to have “a stable presence in China” to facilitate direct contacts with the authorities there. He also said the Holy See hoped the provisional accord with China on the nomination of bishops “would be renewed and developed in some points” when it comes up for renewal in October.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, whose Vatican dicastery helped organize the conference, concluded the afternoon session by remarking that the council “was in a certain way, a kind of Vatican II Council ante-litteram on Chinese soil.” He noted that in the opening procession of the 1924 council, 43 bishops were present. Among them were 17 from France, 10 from Italy, five from Spain, five from Belgium, four from the Netherlands and two from Germany. Two apostolic prefects from China were also present. There were also priests from the Augustinians, Jesuits, Vincentians, Dominicans and members of missionary institutes from Paris, Milan, Parma, Ireland and the United States.

As a consequence of the 1924 council, if a second council of the Catholic Church in China were to be held today, all the bishops would be Chinese—a stark contrast from a century ago. That first council’s decrees, Cardinal Tagle said, “aimed to prevent Christianity from being further presented and perceived as a religious ideology imposed by other civilizations, or as a form of religious imperialism."

He recalled that its documents “are marked by a permanent concern for openness to the values of Chinese culture and sociality,” and emphasized that the fruit of evangelization has been “a truly local church, in communion with the Bishop of Rome and the other local churches.”

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