Mending a Global Church: Chinese Catholics seek a home in Italy

Ruffles. I stood in Prato, Italy, watching lively Chinese immigrants stitch ruffles onto blouses during a 14-hour factory shift and recalled a ruffled blouse I had just purchased. An e-mail alert had prompted me to order it online, with a “special 50-percent discount to be used only today from noon to 1 p.m.” I imagined 300 other women also logging in at lunchtime, causing a rush order to the manufacturer. When a batch of unfinished shirts rolled into Prato at 2 a.m., a subcontractor called these Chinese workers in to add the ruffles. The noise and lights disturbed the sleep of the Italian neighbors in this unzoned area, however, so the Prato police arrived to investigate. Had the ruffle on my blouse caused tension, I wondered. The real world is marked by globalization and migration, not just frolic and fun.

I turned to the priest standing next to me in that Prato factory under the pictures of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Pope Benedict XVI. The Rev. Francesco Wang had courageously stepped into a microcosm of globalization, a force that Pope Benedict XVI warned “could cause unprecedented damage and create new divisions within the human family” (“Charity in Truth,” No. 33). A native of Jilin, China, Father Wang had been sent in 2003 from the Diocese of Qiqihar in Heilongjiang Province to study at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome for three years, after which he returned to China. In 2009, the 36-year-old priest was asked to return to Italy to minister to the Chinese community in the Parrocchia Dell’Ascensione in Prato. The parish Chinese community was having “some problems,” the priest was told, a vague statement he now recalls with a chuckle.


Textiles and Tensions

Just 15 miles from Florence, Prato had reigned since the Middle Ages as the textile capital of Europe. The town’s celebrated hero of the mid-13th century, Francesco Datini, seemed to be an early model for the global entrepreneur. According to Prato’s Textile Museum, Datini’s lucrative company did not provide innovations to the textile industry but implemented new ideas about obtaining raw materials from “abroad,” which then meant Spain, England, Provence and Eastern Europe. From the 1850s to 1980s, Prato was a world center providing fabric to the fashion industry.

When the flourishing Prato textile industry needed cheap labor in the 1980s, Italians knew where to turn, because they had established relationships in outsourcing to Wenzhou, in the Zhejiang region of China. Many immigrants from Wenzhou were granted visas; they learned the industry as they worked long hours in Prato. Then, when centuries-old factories held by Prato families fell into bankruptcy from an inability to compete with multinational companies, frugal Chinese immigrants acquired them, applied innovations and made them profitable again. Since this transition, new immigrants are no longer officially welcome. Yet the Chinese continue to flock to Prato. Among Prato’s population of 186,000, there are 11,500 legal Chinese immigrants and an additional 25,000 illegal immigrants.

As the lone Chinese Catholic priest working with these immigrants, Father Wang has seen the effects of what the pope refers to as the “phenomenon of migration,” striking “because of the sheer numbers of people involved, the social, political, cultural and religious problems it raises and the dramatic challenges it poses to nations and the international community” (“Charity in Truth,” No. 62). Unscrupulous “snakeheads” charge up to $23,000 to bring a worker to Prato, where he or she will earn about $700 a month, $8,400 a year.

In 2009 Prato elected Roberto Cenni as mayor on his campaign promise to prevent the “Chinese invasion.” While Mayor Cenni is the former president and a current shareholder of a Prato holding business whose companies have moved much of their production to China in the last decade, his municipal security director proudly states that raids under Cenni’s administration have quadrupled the number of factory shutdowns in Prato. Father Wang has never met Mayor Cenni, but he has seen city helicopters swoop down on Prato workers fleeing through back exits as factories are raided.

“Xenophobic” was the term Msgr. Santino Brunetti, the parochial vicar of immigration, used to describe Prato’s administration in a public interview with a local journal in October 2010. When Monsignor Brunetti received threats in response to his statement, Bishop Gastone Simoni of Prato quickly defended the church’s duty to remind all persons of their common humanity, no matter how controversial the situation.

In a papal address to Italian political leaders on March 12, 2011, Pope Benedict reminded local administrators like the Prato mayor of their “special dedication…to being promoters of collaboration, of solidarity and humanity.” The pope also referred to the need for ecclesial organizations to support “humanization and socialization, especially dedicated to marginalized and needy groups” and said their activities should be “always properly appreciated and supported even in financial terms.”

View from the Parish

Father Wang rarely receives requests for material assistance from the characteristically independent Chinese, but there are frequent requests for translation services. At the Sunday liturgy in Chinese that I attended, an Italian religious sister made a post-Communion appeal for parishioners to join her evangelization efforts by going door to door in the Chinese community on the following Saturday. Father Wang translated for the 50 Chinese in attendance. The parish also offers Italian lessons during the European factory slowdown months of July and August.

With quiet determination, Father Wang muses, “I think it would be shortsighted to ignore the tremendous returns that could result from the church’s further investment in evangelization efforts in Prato.” There are only about 120 Chinese Catholics in the parish, but there are tens of thousands of Chinese in Prato. As the children attend Italian schools and grow up in a country that is nominally 90 percent Catholic, Father Wang has been successful in capturing their religious imaginations. “I see the need to give these young leaders a vision of the global church beyond Prato,” he says. Unfortunately, his efforts to obtain diocesan funds to send five young adults to World Youth Day in Madrid were unfulfilled.

The Sunday liturgy at the Chinese parish exudes a vibrant community feeling. As I walked to the church, a parishioner kindly confirmed my route and told me that the 3:30 p.m. Mass was meant to accommodate night-shift workers. Father Wang admits, “The parish was rather ‘tribal’ at first because of immigrants coming from different provinces of China, but I tackled that problem by insisting that only Mandarin and not Chinese dialects be spoken in church.”

When the diocese ignored Father Wang’s appeal that the Italian catechumenate period of two years be shortened for the migrant workers, he decided to make the not-yet-baptized feel welcome in his own way. On a typical Sunday, everyone at Mass lines up at Communion time side by side to receive either the Eucharist or a blessing.

Every weekend another Chinese priest, Father Huang, takes a four-hour train ride from Rome to help with hospital and prison ministry. Father Huang told me that on Saturday he had visited about 40 Chinese immigrants imprisoned for illegal entry. He also introduced me to an Italian lawyer who had come to the church to set up a town hall meeting, where Father Huang would be part of a dialogue addressing community tension.

Neighboring Catholic parishes give mixed reviews of the church’s support of the Chinese immigrants. At the Parrocchia S. Maria dell’Umiltà a Chiesanuova, the Rev. Romeo Serafino says, “There are many unemployed persons who understandably have difficulty with the presence of the Chinese workers in these hard economic times.” Father Serafino relates that Bishop Simoni has said all business owners need to respect Prato law, but Father Serafino smiles broadly when mentioning a reputation that some locals have for tax evasion. He knows some Italians claim that the Chinese are loud but adds, “My own parents lived in Germany for the first 10 years of my life and worked long hours to save money. The Germans claimed the Italians were too noisy.”

When Father Serafino was faced with entering the Italian military to fulfill his national duty, he opted instead for service with Caritas. He began working with Chinese immigrants alongside Margaret Sin, a Canossiane sister. A few years ago, the textile manufacturer who employed Father Serafino’s sister went bankrupt. That factory was bought by some Chinese residents of Prato, and today she still does fabric stamping there and receives the generous benefits required by Italian law. Father Serafino is proud that his diocese is meeting the challenges of 21st century migration by holding Masses in Polish, Romanian, Albanian, Ukrainian, Sri Lankan, Spanish, Pakistani, Nigerian, Filipino and, of course, Mandarin Chinese.

Evangelization in a Global Economy

With immigrants come remittances sent home. Audits show that as much as $1.5 million per day is being wired to China from Prato. City administrators claim that the Chinese are sapping the local economy, but Father Wang and Chinese business owners assert that the risky innovation of the Chinese saved the Prato textile industry and that the Chinese contribute daily to the Italian economy by making local purchases. No Italian economists have estimated the Chinese immigrants’ contribution to the local economy. As Pope Benedict wrote, “foreign workers, despite any difficulties concerning integration, make a significant contribution to the economic development of the host country through their labor, besides that which they make to their country of origin through the money they send home” (“Charity in Truth,” No. 62).

Still, cultural hostility was in evidence last year at an important religious and secular event in Prato. Five times each year, the cathedral attracts pilgrims who come to view the “sacred belt” of Mary, kept under lock and key in a gilded bronze reliquary. Legend dating back to the sixth century holds that Mary gave the belt to Thomas at the time of her assumption. Subsequently, the belt found its way to Prato in the 12th century through Michele Dagomari, a Prato resident and Holy Land pilgrim. On Sept. 8, 2010, the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the city of Prato refused to allow the Chinese flag to be part of the religious procession leading to the cathedral’s display of the sacred belt, breaking a tradition that has included the national flags of all of Prato’s sister cities.

What would the Virgin Mary think of such tensions, occasioned by a piece of her clothing, I wondered. Then I thought of my ruffled blouse and the negative impact my own consumer lifestyle contributes to the demand for low-priced goods that drives the global economy. How can globalization be made a positive force in the lives of people in cities like Prato? What can we Catholics do to further economic justice and Christian community in such places? Pope Benedict offers this counsel in “Charity in Truth” (No. 78): “As we contemplate the vast amount of work to be done, we are sustained by our faith that God is present alongside those who…work for justice.”

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