The Church in China

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18 March 2019

This article by Cardinal Parolin is the preface to the second volume of La Chiesa In Cina, ed. by Antonio Spadaro Director of La Civilità Cattolica.  The ebook will be released on March 25th and available to purchase at La Civilità Cattolica

Please email info@laciviltacattolica.com to register your interest in purchasing a copy of the English edition. 

This volume is the second dedicated to the Church in China curated by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ.[1] It comes at a particular moment in the history of relations between the Apostolic See and the ancient Middle Kingdom, especially following the signing of the Provisional Agreement on the nomination of Bishops, which took place in Beijing on September 22, 2018.

La Civilta Cattolica

The volume emerges from the initiatives of the “China Forum for Civilizational Dialogue,” a collaboration between the journal La Civiltà Cattolica and Georgetown University. It draws together various studies that have appeared over the last two years in La Civilità Cattolica, leading the reader on a unique intellectual and ecclesial journey through the culture, society and spirituality of China today.

The Chinese words chosen for the front cover represent two highly evocative expressions: “journey” and “ahead.” They synthesize, in some way, the journey of institutional dialogue between the Holy See and the authorities of the People’s Republic of China that has been evolving at different levels through numerous episodes since the end of the 1980s. They reflect two fundamental interpretative keys: ecclesial continuity and pastoral engagement for the future. These two reference markers take on vital importance especially today, for – without ignoring the spiritual treasure of the local Catholic communities, and taking on the great sufferings and misunderstandings lived by Chinese Catholics for many years – we are called to remember the past and write together a new page for the future of the Church in China. 

It is significant that this monographic collection is published exactly one hundred years after the Apostolic Letter Maximum illud of Pope Benedict XV. That pontifical document was entirely dedicated to the missions with the aim of promoting their complete reform, what Pope Francis might refer to as a “pastoral conversion.” Certainly, Maximum illud reflected above all the great commitment of Benedict XV for peace in the dramatic context of the First World War, which he rightly defined as “useless slaughter.” But it was also pervaded by a projection of the global proclamation of the Gospel that recognized the heroism of many missionaries and realistically accepted the limits of the work carried out to bring the Gospel to all, while calling for a return to the spiritual and pastoral sources of the mission to the people, ad gentes.

Consequently, Benedict XV made a series of recommendations asking missionaries for greater dynamism, closer cooperation between religious congregations, avoiding exclusivism and competition, the development of collaboration between neighboring dioceses, and above all the abandonment of attitudes of superiority toward the indigenous clergy, together with a greater zeal for their formation.

Moreover, he warned missionaries about the danger of cultivating nationalist sentiments and recommended a solid cultural preparation through the learning of local languages to develop efficacious preaching. Finally, the Apostolic Letter contained a strong and clear message: the missions are not an extension of Western Christianity, but the expression of a Church that wants to be truly universal.

It was a message aimed above all at China. In fact, the main requests were coming precisely from that great country, from missionaries such as Lazzarist Fathers Vincent Lebbe and Antoine Cotta, and Monsignor Jean Baptiste de Guebriant of the Paris Foreign Missions.

In Rome, such considerations were received with great care and attention. For some time, the Holy See had felt the need to develop new relations with states that were not among the traditional “Christian nations” and located outside of Europe. After the First World War, the need was felt to secure the place of the Catholic Missions in view of the clashes among European nations, the negative effects of which were acutely felt even in China. This is the context for the dialogue carried out in those years to establish friendly relations between the Apostolic See and the new Chinese state that was being set up after the end of the empire.

China, as on other occasions, became a missionary “laboratory.” A rethinking and a renewal of the work of evangelization in the Catholic Church began there that was destined to spread to the rest of the world. This is not an accident: the Church has always recognized and respected the peculiarities and richness of Chinese civilizations and history.

The new missionary approach that matured in China was proposed for the entire world on the basis of a strong sense of the universality of the Church. From this, indirectly, there emerged the recognition of the equal dignity of all peoples and all countries to which the Gospel is proclaimed. One of the most important people who put into effect the vision of Pope Benedict XV was Archbishop Celso Costantini, the first apostolic delegate to China, who looked to Beijing as a center from which an evangelizing wave would reach all of Asia.

It is known that resistance was not lacking at that time, both inside and outside the Church. Above all it came from European powers, who felt the loss of their ancient control of the missions, which had somehow survived even the separation of church and state in the 1800s. On the other hand, the Holy See had grown in the awareness of the high price paid for this protection in terms of the credibility of the proclamation of the Gospel. Reservations were also expressed from within the Church, and these were no less profound and painful, even if less visible.

Thus the Apostolic Letter was ignored by some, was welcomed by others only in the aspects that concerned missionary cooperation, and remained substantially misunderstood by many. And there is perhaps no reason to be surprised, given that what was involved was a veritable historical change in direction summarized in Maximum illud with the following words: “Therefore, as the Church of God is universal, and so in no way a stranger to any people, so too it is convenient that in each nation there be priests able to guide, as teachers and masters, their fellow countrymen along the way of eternal salvation. Wherever there will be a sufficient number of indigenous clergy well instructed and worthy of her holy vocation, there too the Church can deem herself to be well established, and the missionary work complete. And if ever the clouds of persecution were to strike that Church, there would be no need to fear, for with that basis and those firm roots She will not succumb to enemy attack.”[2]

These words anticipated surprisingly what would happen in China in the course of the 1900s. Despite many trials and troubles the Church planted there is still alive, because its roots in the indigenous clergy have persisted through adversity.

All of this brings us to ask about the current Catholic presence in China. Certainly, many things have happened in the world over the past one hundred years, and compared to a century ago many things have changed in the Church, too. It is enough to recall the great event of the Second Vatican Council. However, even if it is now Chinese believers who are taking care of their Church, the evangelization of China remains a decisive challenge for all of Catholicism today. And today too, as a century ago, the Chinese case shows that to face the challenge of evangelization there is above all need to reweave the unity of the Church.

As is known, important steps forward in this sense were taken recently. With the very aim of supporting the proclamation of the Gospel in China, on September 8, 2018, the Holy Father Francis welcomed into full communion the remaining seven “official” bishops who had been ordained without pontifical mandate. So, after decades, all the bishops in China are today in communion with the Supreme Pontiff. The subsequent participation, for the first time, of two bishops from continental China at the XV General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2018, was a poignant expression of this communion. They showed their joy at what they called the prospect, which is possible today, of a complete integration of the Chinese Church into the universal Church. The Church in China needs unity, it needs trust and a new pastoral missionary impulse. Not by chance, as this change took place, Pope Francis reminded the Catholics of China of the need to have “passionate missionaries, enthusiastic about sharing true life”[3] and “with apostolic courage”[4] to bring to others the joy of the Gospel.

Naturally, many problems remain for the life of the Church in China. It is no accident, and this needs to be underlined, that the Provisional Agreement of September 22, 2018, is not so much a point of arrival as a starting point. In particular, the path of unity is not yet entirely complete and the full reconciliation between Chinese Catholics and the respective communities to which they belong remains a primary objective. It is more than ever necessary, therefore, that in China a serious path of purification of memory begin progressively.

Just as a century ago, today again the universality of the Church stops her from forging preferential links with one area of the world at the expense of others, or with one civilization at the expense of others. In particular, this universality pushes the Holy See to nurture no distrust or hostility toward any country, but to follow the way of dialogue in order to reduce distances, overcome misunderstandings, and avoid new divisions. The proclamation of the Gospel in China cannot be separated from a stance of respect, esteem, and trust toward the Chinese People and their legitimate state authorities. Concerned about divisions and conflicts that pervade the globalized world, the Holy See hopes to be able to collaborate with China to promote peace, to address the serious environmental issues of our time, to facilitate the encounter of cultures, and to advance the good of humanity.

Today, as always, the Church does not forget the sacrifice of so many of her sons  and daughters in China, but in light of their example, the Church looks for the most opportune ways to reach those who still do not know the Good News and desire a greater witness from all who call themselves Christian. History often forces religious matters and political issues, ecclesial themes and cultural discussions, moral questions and social drama, into inextricable knots.

The need for evangelization also offers a perspective that can overcome many particular questions and foster a unified approach, through which theology, law, and pastoral work – and even diplomacy – merge in a creative and constructive way. In this context, once again today, the concern of the Pope for the Church and the Chinese people still meets resistance and opposition.

I am convinced that intellectual contributions such as those promoted by the community of writers of La Civiltà Cattolica in recent years help to overcome the logic of facile opposites, to perceive the real complexity of the cultural, social and religious challenges of China and the world today, and to progressively untie the knots that still impede the joy of fruitful encounter.

In 2016, at Pordenone, I was able to sum up the current context of the Chinese-Vatican dialogue and the many hopes and expectations for new developments and a new season in the relations between the Apostolic See and China, for the benefit not only of Catholics in the land of Confucius, but of the country that boasts one of the great civilizations of the planet.[5]

I underlined that the desired new relations with China are being conceived and carried out not without fear and trembling, because they concern the Church, something of God, only insofar as they are “functional” for the good of Chinese Catholics, for the good of the entire Chinese people, and for the harmony of the whole society. 

The aims and objectives of the action of the Holy See, specifically in a Chinese context, remain the same as ever: the Salus animarum and the Libertas Ecclesiae. For the Church in China, this means the possibility of announcing with greater freedom the Gospel of Christ and doing so in a social, political and cultural setting of increased trust. The Catholic Church in China is not a “foreigner” but an integral and active part of Chinese history and can contribute to the edification of a society that is more harmonious and respectful of all.

Today, the hope of Pope Francis is that, after so many difficulties, misunderstandings, and sufferings, the Catholic Community, too, can intone in the Middle Kingdom, through sincere dialogue, a “hymn of faith and thanksgiving, enriched by authentically Chinese notes.”[6]

This collection is yet to be published in English

The Italian language edition will be available at La Civilità Cattolica March 25


[1] The first volume is Nell’anima della Cina. Saggezza, storia, fede, Milan, Àncora, 2017.

[2] Benedict XV, Maximum illud, Apostolic Letter on the activity carried out by missionaries in the world, November 30, 1919.

[3] Francis, Message to the Catholics of China and to the Universal Church, September 26, 2018, 7.

[4] Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, March 19, 2018, 139.

[5] Cf. Conference at the Seminary of Pordenone, August 27, 2016.

[6] Francis, Message to the Catholics of China and to the Universal Church, September 26, 2018, 9.