‘Let China Love You’: Building relationships with Catholic China

‘Let China love you.” This advice, given to me in 1974 by Linus Lombard, a Passionist priest, changed my life. As relevant today as it was then, this radical vision, suggested by the 20-year veteran (1934–54) of the Passionist mission to West Hunan, remains key to understanding China. Having endured house arrest and expulsion from China, Father Lombard challenged me to study history by going beyond the news headlines.

President Richard M. Nixon had just visited the People’s Republic of China in 1972, the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966–76) was still underway and U.S. Catholics in the 1970s viewed China through the lens of missionary persecution. Instead, Father Lombard counseled, it is cultural understanding and relationships that stand the test of time. This is wise advice for Catholic Church organizations, cross-cultural educators and historians to follow when interacting with contemporary Catholic China.


In 1949 there were three million Chinese Catholics in the newly declared People’s Republic of China. Decades of persecution and suffering became the norm. Political and theological debates exacerbated the believers’ witness. Yet China’s opening under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s revealed that the Catholic Church in China had not died. Catholic organizations in the United States set out to engage and express concern for the Catholic Church in China. Through public education, prayer and witness, two distinct voices paved the way.

Founded in 1989, the U.S. Catholic China Bureau responded to the opening of China on behalf of Catholic organizations, religious orders, academics and individuals. Its mission has been to promote understanding among American Catholics about the Catholic Church in China. In 2011 its executive director, Michel Marcil, S.J., relocated the bureau from Seton Hall University in New Jersey to Berkeley, Calif. On Oct. 4–6, 2013, the bureau and Loyola University Chicago co-sponsored the 25th National China Conference to address the theme “The American Catholic Church and China in an Era of Globalization.”

The other voice, the Cardinal Kung Foundation in Stamford, Conn., established in 1994, has been directed by Joseph Kung, nephew of the late Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei (1901–2000) of Shanghai. Keeping before the public and media those members of the Catholic Church in China who have a strong allegiance to the pope has been its primary objective.

Currently, both organizations stress the importance of Pope Benedict XVI’s “Letter to Chinese Catholics” (2007), which declares that all China’s Catholics are members of the universal church, who are living witnesses to suffering and a sign of reconciliation and hope. In this spirit, creative participation of these two organizations with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, archdiocesan and diocesan Chinese apostolates and lay U.S. Chinese Catholics will provide an invaluable experience of service. I suggest “Let China love you” expresses the approach needed to build a common bridge from contemporary to future realities in China.

Cardinal John Tong of Hong Kong, chairperson of the local Holy Spirit Study Centre founded in 1980, publicly maintains there is one Chinese Catholic Church, though it still has divisions. I and others agree that the terms registered and unregistered best describe their situation, though the Holy Spirit Study Centre opts to use the terms open and underground. In 2011, the center reported there were 12 million Chinese Catholics. Open church priests totalled 1,900, compared with 1,300 underground priests. Open church sisters were 3,400 as compared with 1,600 underground. Open church bishops numbered 68; there were 38 underground.

On March 20, 2013, a week after his papal election, Pope Francis exchanged greetings with Cardinal Tong before the cardinal left for Hong Kong. “The Church in China is in my heart” are the words of encouragement the pope offered Cardinal Tong. Gestures to heal church divisions should always be of paramount concern for all Catholics.

Cross-Cultural Learning

The work of Matteo Ricci, S.J., (1552-1610) in China remains the best practical example of cross-cultural education. In his spirit, many Catholics since the 1980s have taken advantage of opportunities to teach in China. My position as a foreign expert at Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing, China, (2007–8) provided a fine opportunity to witness and live out the tenet of action advocated by Father Lombard. Placement was arranged by the Association for International Teaching, Educational and Cultural Exchange in collaboration with the Missionary Society of St. Columban. Its aim is to foster the modernization of China, especially in the area of education. From 1988 to 2011 AITECE has appointed 367 teachers, 17 percent of them from the United States, to serve in 90 Chinese educational institutes in 13 provinces, two municipalities and one autonomous region. The largest number, 120 teachers, have worked in Chongqing. I was one of 85 instructors at SISU. My experience did not disappoint me. Teaching in China is a perfect opportunity to share knowledge, culture and faith.

A second example of cross-cultural education is the theological instruction and spiritual formation of young Chinese priests, sisters, seminarians and laypeople. Since 1991, Chinese Catholic bishops and religious superiors have successfully coordinated with Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States to fulfill this objective. Initiated by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, in cooperation with the Maryknoll Sisters, and with Chinese Catholic representatives, this project has provided study opportunities for 110 future leaders of the Catholic Church in China from 37 dioceses. Among them are five bishops. Bishop Paul Pei Junmin, of Shenyang Diocese in Liaoning Province, for example, obtained a master of arts in Scripture from Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary, in Philadelphia, Pa. In 2001 and 2002 I had the privilege of teaching at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Currently, 20 participants in the Maryknoll program are studying in the United States. After the completion of their degrees, they plan to return to China, where they will serve as needed in their respective dioceses. Such programs have historical precedents. Before ordination as a priest of the Diocese of Yuanling, Hunan, in 1948, John Nien received his theological training at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.

Rich in History

Finally, historians studying the Chinese Catholic history since the early 1600s might do well to revisit the archives. R. G. Tiedemann’s Reference Guide to Christian Missionary Societies in China (M. E. Sharpe, 2009) offers untapped information on international Protestant and Catholic initiatives, while Wu Xiaoxin’s Christianity in China, second edition (M. E. Sharpe, 2009), highlights libraries and archives that hold hidden scholarly treasures. Scholars who love both Chinese and Western languages, the humanities, the sciences and the drama of Western and Chinese biographies as ways to reinvestigate and reinterpret missionaries will find these sources central in their quest to promote fresh historical paradigms to engage with Chinese society.

Archival digitization suggests that technology has the potential to humanize Chinese Catholic history. For example, Maryknoll participated in the International Mission Photography Archive at the Digital Library at the University of Southern California. A digital collaboration is currently underway between the Passionists on the East Coast and the Ricci Institute at the University of San Francisco. Both projects breathe new life and vitality into Chinese-Western religious encounters.

The Passionist project has already drawn inquiries from relatives in search of their Chinese and missionary relatives. Upon completion of the digitization, over 5,000 photos and 50,000 documents on West Hunan history from the 1920s to the 1950s will be available to help a new generation of historians to critically embrace the realities of 20th-century Catholic identity in China. This digitization project provides a model for new possibilities to examine the past and aspire for the future.

According to Tiedemann’s sourcebook, 35 religious congregations of women in the United States and 16 male religious groups sent missionaries to China during the 20th century. A national conference sponsored by a consortium of Catholic universities presently committed to educational exchange in China would be helpful for the purpose of gathering historians and archivists of these religious congregations to develop a strategy whereby the love and legacy of Catholic China scholarship can be passed on to a new generation of U.S. and Chinese scholars and students.

“Let China love you.” For me, these words of Father Lombard still go to the heart of the China Catholic narrative that might help shape the future.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Christopher Rushlau
5 years 5 months ago
I have a riddle to propose. It seems to me that something happened to Judaism at about the time that Buddhism would have sent ripples in its direction, where we saw the replacement of "kill all the Canaanites, man, woman, and child" with "the law of God is in your hearts and on your lips". So today in "the West" we have the fundamental tension between authority and conscience. But then, too, we have, if you look for it, a mystical tradition whereby your conscience is somehow magically your authority. As Chesterton said of Christianity, it is not so much that this has been tried and found wanting, but that it has never been tried. Someone else used the analogy of monkey bars hanging over "the abyss". We know we should let go and float on the wings of faith, but rarely do. Does Chinese/Indian tradition contain the answer to this paradox? I cite "The End of Religion" by Aelred Graham, OSB, on the fruitfulness of searching in "the East" for spiritual fruits that may feed the "Western" spiritual palate. In particular Graham mentions the ancient Hindu idea of "tat tvam asi", the "law of dependent origination, "thou art that", which is to say that almost all our doctrines are exercises in personal (my, not our) self-justification--so that it's not about that but about thou, and thy unwillingness to face life as it is, which is to say, mostly inscrutable (pun, hardy har har?). How do you get used to hardly knowing anything at all, and the stuff you do know is all so depressingly mortal, mundane, and HERE? Could Chinese culture even today carry the answer, which we can say in general is a matter of praxis, not -doxy? Is it merely a matter of learning to let your mind rest in not knowing, as surely as you look at the sky and really have nothing to add?


The latest from america

The latest survey, conducted in January, found that 44 percent of white Catholics approve of President Trump’s job performance.
Today and everyday we are invited to pray with the psalmist.
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, distributes ashes on Ash Wednesday at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston March 6, 2019. (CNS photo/James Ramos, Texas Catholic Herald)
It is expected that Cardinal DiNardo will remain hospitalized for several days.
Catholic News ServiceMarch 17, 2019
The new web series “Sunday to Sunday” identifies a series of case studies about preaching by listening to preachers in their own words and hearing samples of their efforts.  
Mike RussoMarch 16, 2019