The conference at the Pontifical Urban University The conference at the Pontifical Urban University  

Cardinal Parolin on China: Obedience to the Pope enlivens love for country

Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, speaking at an International Conference for the 100th anniversary of the first Concilium Sinense, says "it was a model for many other mission countries."

By Salvatore Cernuzio

“The Pope is the spiritual leader of all Catholics in the world, regardless of their nationality; but this obedience to the Pope not only does not harm the love each person should have for their own country, but rather purifies and enlivens it.”

These words, spoken by Archbishop Celso Costantini, the first Apostolic Delegate to China, over a hundred years ago, are highly relevant today.

The late Archbishop clarified that “such communion is the best guarantee of a faith shielded from external political interests and firmly anchored in local culture and society.”

Archbishop Costantini tirelessly worked, despite difficulties, delays, and resistance, to ensure that the Gospel of Christ took root in Chinese soil and was compatible with local society and culture.

Archbishop Costantini also organized and promoted the Concilium Sinense, the first and so far the only Synod of the Catholic Church in China, whose centenary was celebrated on Tuesday, May 21. The anniversary was marked at an important international conference promoted by the Pontifical Urban University, in collaboration with Fides news agency and the Pastoral Commission for China.

Among the key speakers in the morning session was Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.

Good believers, good citizens

It was an “academic, not celebratory” conference, as Rector Vincenzo Buonomo described it in his introduction, preceded by a video message from Pope Francis. It was not a “historical reconstruction” of the event, but a reflection on how the synodal event itself serves as “a basis and reference for the inculturation that the Christian message brings, which can guarantee the presence of excellent believers and at the same time excellent citizens.”

This was the concept Pope Francis emphasised in his greeting to the Chinese people during the concluding Mass of his trip to Mongolia, and which Cardinal Parolin reiterated in his speech.

He recalled how Archbishop Costantini wrote unequivocal words about this more than a century ago. “The Pope wants Chinese Catholics to love their country and be the best among citizens. The Pope loves all nations, like God, whose representative he is; he loves China, your noble and great nation, and does not place it below any other.”

The value of the Concilium Sinense today

Looking back at history, Cardinal Parolin highlighted that although the Council of Shanghai was a “particular council;” it held “a broader ecclesial significance.”

The Chinese assembly was “a model for many other mission countries that, following its example, would prepare to celebrate their own national synods in the following years.”

According to Cardinal Parolin, the remembrance of what happened holds “great value” even for the present time of the Church, which, at Pope Francis’s invitation, is engaged in reflection on synodality, calling the People of God “to be responsible and protagonists in the life of the Church.”

This was the same experience that the Synod Fathers had from May 15 to June 12 in Shanghai. “We resemble modest workers building a cathedral,” noted Archbishop Costantini. “The design is given by the architect, but each one brings his own brick to the great construction. For us, the architect is the Pope. The workers pass, but the cathedral remains.”

From "Foreign Missions" to a "Missionary Church"

The Cardinal expressed these thoughts in a context marked by positive aspects but also imbalances, both due to the “almost exclusive presence of foreign clergy” and “a certain attachment of some missionary circles to the patronage established by the Great Western Powers and the pastoral methods determined by it.”

In this context, Archbishop Costantini set out his missionary and diplomatic “strategy,” inspired by Pope Benedict XV's Maximum Illud, which led him to the “conviction” that he should hold a general synod of the Church in China.

However, first, while recognizing “the merit of many foreign missionaries” who, with charity and dedication, “brought the Gospel to China,” Archbishop Costantini understood that there needed to be an effort to better integrate the Catholic faith into Chinese life.

“Costantini’s saw the urgency of moving from the concept of ‘foreign missions’ to that of ‘missionary Church’”, Cardinal Parolin emphasized.

Therefore, it was necessary to advance the work of indigenizing the clergy.

With this intent, “he supported the ordination of the first six Chinese bishops in 1926, and with the same purpose, he founded the Congregation of the Disciples of the Lord the following year.”

He also lucidly promoted Chinese artistic and architectural forms, “through which the inculturation of the Catholic faith could further materialize.”

There was no shortage of criticism and a real media campaign against him, Cardinal Parolin recalled. But “he always reacted to criticism with foresight.”

The renewal of the agreement

Archbishop Costantini’s legacy reaches our time, which has been marked since 2018 by a strengthening of reciprocal relations between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China through the provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops.

It is an agreement that “we are all interested in renewing and also developing some points,” said Cardinal Parolin on the sidelines of the conference.

At the same time, the Cardinal expressed his hope of having “a stable presence in China.”

“Even if initially it might not take the form of a pontifical representation or an apostolic nunciature, it could still increase and deepen our contacts. This is our goal.”

An inculturated Church

These words were spoken by Cardinal Parolin alongside the Bishop of Shanghai, Giuseppe Shen Bin. “We will continue to build the Church in China into a holy and Catholic Church that conforms to God's will, accepts the excellent traditional cultural heritage of China, and is welcomed by Chinese society today," said the bishop.

The Chinese bishop outlined four points for the present of the Catholic Church in his country First, he said, “the development of the Church in China must be faithful to the Gospel of Christ,” and therefore to the “traditional Catholic faith.”

In 1949, the year of the founding of new China, the Church “always remained faithful to its Catholic faith, while striving to constantly adapt to the new political system.”

At that time, “the religious freedom policy implemented by the Chinese government had no interest in changing the Catholic faith but hoped that clergy and faithful Catholics would defend the interests of the Chinese people and free themselves from the control of foreign powers.”

The problems of the past

Bishop Shen Bin recalled that the then Secretary-General of the State Council, Xi Zhongxun, assured that the Chinese government did not oppose the country’s Catholics having religious contacts with the Vatican, but these, he said, “were allowed only on the condition that they did not go against the interests of the Chinese people, did not violate China's sovereignty, and that the Vatican changed its hostile policy towards China.”

The Bishop of Shanghai also recalled past problems between the Church and the State in China, partly due to “the strong sense of European cultural superiority” of some missionaries, who “even intended to use the Christian religion to change Chinese society and culture.”

This was “inevitably opposed and even detested by many Chinese” and “hindered a greater spread of the Gospel of love among the Chinese people.”

A path of sinicization

Today, as the Chinese people pursue “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation comprehensively with a modernization in Chinese style,” the Catholic Church “must move in the same direction,” affirmed Bishop Shen Bin, “following a path of sinicization that aligns with today’s Chinese society and culture.”

He invited Chinese priests and faithful “to love their country and their Church and closely link the Church's development with the people's well-being.” In this regard, he quoted Pope Francis’s words that “being a good Christian is not only compatible with being a good citizen but is an integral part of it.”

Two female speakers

Two women were among the speakers at the conference at the Pontifical Urban University.

One was Zheng Xiaoyun, president of the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who noted that today in China, according to the government, there are 98 dioceses, 9 institutes, 6,000 churches, and 6 million believers, over 8,000 religious under the “full guarantee of religious freedom.”

She expressed hope for the renewal of the Agreement between China and the Holy See.

Afterwards, Professor Elisa Giunipero, a lecturer in Chinese History at the Catholic University of Milan, recalled “the significant and often underestimated influence of Catholic missions in China and the world.”

"From the Church in China has come the impetus for change that has transformed the Church in mission territories," helping to imagine a universal Church that is “no longer just the bearer of European culture,” she added. "The Holy See, in its tenacity and action to celebrate the Council … placed its trust in the Chinese clergy.”

“This,” she concluded, “greatly helped the Church to withstand the difficulties in the decades that followed.”

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21 May 2024, 16:33