VATICAN - Cardinal Parolin: communion with the Pope is the best guarantee of a faith free from external political interests

Tuesday, 21 May 2024

photo Teresa Tseng Kuang Yi

We publish the speech of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of His Holiness, at the International Conference "100 years since the Concilium Sinense: between history and present" (Pontifical Urbaniana University, May 21, 2024)

I would like to thank the Dicastery for Evangelization and the Pontifical Urbaniana University for organizing this conference on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Concilium Sinense.

I cordially greet all those present, in particular His Excellency Monsignor Shen Bin: his presence, as bishop of the see that hosted the first Plenary Council of the Church in China, gives special significance to the event. I also welcome the scholars and clergy who have come from the People's Republic of China to join us today.

While entering the legal category of particular councils, that of Shanghai undoubtedly had a broader ecclesial significance: it is, in fact, commonly recognized that the Chinese assembly served as a model for many other mission countries which, following its example, prepared to celebrate their respective national synods in the years that followed. The memory of what happened there is also of great value for the present moment of the Church which, at the invitation of Pope Francis, is engaged in a reflection on synodality, as a peculiar style that qualifies the life and mission of the community of believers. The fact of being "convened" - this is the etymological meaning of the term "concilum" - and the fact of "walking together" which results from it - according to the meaning of the Greek word "synodos" - show how the People of God, in its various components, is called to be responsible and protagonist in the life of the Church, contributing to actively and freely shaping its action and style, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The echoes which, through historical testimonies, reach us in this regard from the Council of Shanghai are eloquent: "We resemble the humble workers who build a cathedral – noted in this regard the apostolic delegate Celso Costantini – the project is given by the architect, but everyone contributes their brick to the great construction. For us, the Pope is the architect. Workers pass, but the cathedral remains" (C. COSTANTINI, With the Missionaries in China (1922-1933). Memoirs of facts and ideas, vol. I, XXX). And indeed, the legacy of the synod celebrated in Shanghai remains as a great work, establishing the fundamental rule of Catholic missions in China.

At the conclusion of this morning session of the Conference, I am happy to be able to offer some considerations, focusing specifically on the figure of Celso Costantini - who is particularly dear to me - who, more than anyone else, was the initiator and promoter of the Concilium Sinense. His human depth, his Christian depth and his historical foresight provide insights that I still consider particularly valuable today.

A first feature that seems significant to me is the particular context in which Costantini exercised his ministry. He demonstrated an uncommon insight in deciphering the ecclesial situation of his time, highlighting both its positive aspects and the imbalances that characterized it: this lucid consideration of reality would prove decisive in shaping his missionary and diplomatic "strategy", and in confirming in him the conviction of celebrating a General Council of the Church in China.

As we know, in the wake of the sensitivities which were maturing in the Catholic Church at that time and to which, shortly before, the Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud had given voice, Monsignor Costantini noted a persistent, and then excessive, dependence on the foreign component of the mission: this imbalance was manifested both by the almost exclusive presence of foreign clerics and by a certain predilection of certain missionary circles for the patronage established by the great Western powers and the pastoral methods which resulted from it. Even before his arrival in China, Monsignor Costantini noted in his memoirs: "We understand that foreign missions initially sometimes need protection [...] but we do not understand why these foreign missions should have a definitively foreign and political character" (With the Missionaries in China, vol. I, VI).
When he arrived in the great country, he had to directly experience this dynamic and the fact that such an approach sometimes risked removing evangelical inspiration from the Catholic apostolate. After only a month in China, Costantini had to note, not without a note of regret: "The [Christian] religion came from Palestine to the Roman world: yet, among so many accusations raised against it, that of a foreign religion cannot be found or it is simply mentioned. We have been in China for more than three centuries. The entire ecclesiastical hierarchy is [still] foreign. [...] Is this the Church that Christ wanted?... » (With the Missionaries in China, vol. I, X).
The intention of the Apostolic Delegate - as well as ours today - was certainly not to institute a trial against history. With balance, he recognized the merit of many foreign missionaries who, with a sense of true charity and dedication, brought the Gospel to China and worked for the social development of this people. However, he also recognized that "human aid" from foreign powers - to use the term he used - despite having protected and favored missionary expansion for a certain time, "also had a passive moral weight to the economy of evangelization" (With the Missionaries in China, vol. I, XVII). Thus, from Costantini's point of view, the urgency of moving from the concept of "foreign missions" to that of "missionary Church" became evident, as he himself noted with his usual frankness: "Is it conceivable that the Catholic Church is established in a large country under the control and protection of a foreign nation? If it concerns foreign missions, this is understandable; but if it concerns the Church, this is not at all understandable. And we came to China, not so much to organize foreign missions as to establish the Church...". (With the Missionaries in China, vol. I, X). This conviction was accompanied by the awareness that, to restore vigor to evangelization in the country, the Catholic Church would have to free herself from political events and colonial interests, remaining outside and above them.

Costantini's analysis of the Chinese Catholic context - as well as, more generally, the indications provided by the Maximum Illud which inspired him - were certainly not universally shared: although, a century later, we can easily recognize the validity, in the context of the time, they were on the other hand strongly criticized, costing the Apostolic Delegate some trials and suffering. The objections focused first on the effectiveness of the general approach given by the Apostolic Letter and questioned whether it was sufficiently incisive with regard to the Chinese culture and government of the time. According to his detractors, Constantini's open attitude, inspired by the precepts of the Maximum Illud, would have even legitimized unpleasant episodes - such as the looting of Catholic missions or even the assassination of missionaries - in reality all far from his responsibility. The local foreign-language press led a veritable campaign against him: the Journal de Shanghai, for example, or the correspondent Journal de Pekin, and even the Echo de Chine published by some missionaries, gave space to numerous articles criticizing in an irreverent manner the Roman indications and Mgr Costantini in particular. To reproaches, he always reacted with foresight: "It will happen for Maximum Illud – he noted already in 1926 – what happened for Rerum Novarum, which initially did not find favor in certain old Catholic circles. The old circles disappeared, and Rerum Novarum became the venerated and undisputed magna carta of Christian sociology. There will certainly be difficulties in this period of change. But the Lord, for whom alone we work, will help us" (With the Missionaries in China, vol. I, LIX).

In order to promote the desired transition from “foreign missions” to the “missionary Church”, the Apostolic Delegate wished above all that the Christian faith, in its multiple expressions, could be authentically inculturated in China, a term dear to the Catholic tradition, which he never used but which fully expresses his thoughts and intentions. He was, however, well aware that such an evolution would not have been fully accomplished - nor possible in itself - without another fundamental requirement: direct dialogue, that is to say without the intermediation of the Powers, between the Holy See and the Authorities of the country. In Costantini's intentions, the two elements could only go hand in hand, as complementary factors of the same process.

As we have mentioned, the first feature of the Apostolic Delegate's "strategy" was the effort to bring the Catholic faith more fully into the lives of the Chinese. This development was understood in a broad sense and included different aspects. The need for a true plantatio ecclesiae, first of all, which would deeply root Catholicism in Chinese society, also through the promotion of an indigenous clergy. Therefore, a true inculturation, with the liturgical use of the local language and the development of indigenous forms of expression to transmit the unique and unchanging faith. Efforts in this direction are easily identifiable by scrolling through the 861 canons approved by the Council of Shanghai, where some of these themes are very recurrent. This approach, however, was already well present in Costantini's thought even in the period preceding the celebration of the council. He, for example, had very lucid words on the need to root Catholicism in the local context, as he well described using a simple but eloquent image: according to him, until then the work of evangelization in China gave the impression of having "transplanted" a tree already developed full of foliage which, however, had never had the possibility to penetrate its roots into the depths of the soil; now, however, we could see the need to sow seeds which, although takes time to grow, would be able to take root vigorously in the soil, like the Chinese people. Likewise, the urgency of advancing the work of indigenization of the clergy appeared clearly to him: "Whatever anyone says, the foreign missionary is a guest. [...] And the Church must be naturalized: she cannot be perpetually composed of guests" (With the Missionaries in China, vol. I, LXX). It is in this perspective that he favored the ordination of the first six Chinese bishops in 1926, and with this same purpose he founded the Congregation of the Disciples of the Lord the following year. Finally, his promotion of local artistic and architectural forms, through which the inculturation of the Catholic faith could be achieved, was lucid. Costantini himself was an enthusiast and scholar of Christian art and had a strong personal sensitivity on the subject. According to his appreciation, the Chinese figurative tradition possessed considerable resources for expressing the Christian mystery, by transforming itself and enriching itself: "It is not enough – he noted in a work entirely written on this subject – to take a Chinese woman, with a modest face, and to dress her in the dress of the empress or that of the goddess Kuan-Hyn to make her a Virgin Mary. Nor is it enough to give the eaves of the roof of a residence or a church the upward movement specific to Chinese roofs to make Chinese architecture. No, art is a much deeper thing. To Christianize indigenous art is to renew it ab intus, to first give it a new soul" (C. COSTANTINI, Christian art in the missions. Art manual for missionaries, 1940, p. 87). He demonstrated the same sensitivity on the delicate question of the liturgical use of the Chinese language: the proposal to use the local idiom instead of Latin in the celebration of the sacraments had already been put forward by Giovanni da Montecorvino at the end of the 13th century, then adopted by the Jesuits who followed Matteo Ricci in the Celestial Empire. It also found a fervent defender in the person of
the Apostolic Delegate Costantini.

The plantatio ecclesiae and the inculturation of the Catholic faith, as Constantini conceived them, could not, however, ignore a fundamental requirement, or rather a necessary and implicit condition, which supported its entire structure: the link with the Successor of Peter. It is no coincidence that the ordination of the first Chinese bishops, who would initiate the indigenous apostolic hierarchy, took place in Rome, in the Vatican basilica and in the hands of the Supreme Pontiff himself. It was a gesture of intense beauty and great eloquence: by manifesting the source of all authority in the Church, it 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. Costantini explained this theme during a speech held in Hankow (Hubei Province): “To come to you, I traveled the magnificent Blue River, which descends from Tibet, flows through countless flourishing cities and then merges with the sea. The sea in turn, sends its clouds over the mountains; they transform and condense into snow, the snow melts and feeds the river. It is an eternal affair, it is a continuous exchange between heaven and earth, which promotes the life and work of man. Here is the Catholic religion, which starts from the origins and spans the centuries, with a continuous trade between heaven and earth, between God and humanity. [...] As the river goes back to the valleys, Catholicism goes back to the sources of Christianity. Peter, the first Head constituted by Christ, never dies, he is constantly renewed in the person of his successors, until the last pope who will last as long as the world lasts. This admirable continuity and unity of life is the salient feature which, even for the layman, demonstrates the greatness and divinity of the Catholic Church. Perfect unity in time and space" (With the Missionaries in China, vol. I, XIX). Throughout his writings, the Apostolic Delegate returned several times to the theme of unity between the Pope and all Catholics scattered throughout the world, whatever their national affiliation, specifying that this communion was precisely the best guarantee of a faith freed from external political interests and firmly anchored in local culture and society: “The Pope is the spiritual leader of all Catholics in the world, to whatever nation they belong; but this obedience to the Pope not only does not harm the love that each person owes to his country, but purifies and revives it. [...] The Pope wants Chinese Catholics to love their country and be the best among its citizens. The Pope loves all Nations, like God, of whom he is the Representative; he loves China, your noble and great Nation and does not place it after any other” (With the Missionaries in China, vol. I, XIV).

As we saw above, Costantini's missionary and diplomatic "strategy" was based not only on inculturation and indigenization, but also on a second pillar, namely the need for the Holy See and the Chinese authorities to establish a direct dialogue between them. On several occasions, the Apostolic Delegate wanted to demonstrate a certain detachment from foreign diplomatic representations: by establishing his residence first in Hankou then in Beijing, for example, he wanted it well away from the vicinity of the international Legations, in order to avoid any possible misunderstanding about the nature of his mission. Furthermore, he also maintained frequent contacts and fruitful exchanges with the
Ministers of foreign Powers, while taking care to distinguish his action from theirs: for example, he refused on several occasions to take advantage of the good offices of Western Representatives in order to be introduced to the country's authorities, preferring to use purely ecclesiastical channels. This attitude was certainly not motivated by reasons of contempt or by false illusions about the greater effectiveness of its means. Rather, it derived from the just conviction 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.

Costantini's intuitions, even in their innovative character, were deeply rooted in previous history: they were in fact part of a long series of attempts
already started in the 19th century, which revealed an awareness that the Apostolic See had acquired long ago . For example, the first Synod project for the indigenization of the Chinese Church had already been launched in 1849, under the impetus of the Instruction Neminem profecto, published four years earlier by the Congregation of Propaganda Fide to respond to the need urgent need to form self-sufficient indigenous clergy throughout the Catholic world. This plan, however, remained a dead letter due to the external pressures to which the Roman Curia was subjected. Likewise, and for similar reasons, various previous attempts by the Holy See and China to establish mutual relations have also failed. In this regard, we can cite the embassy led in 1860 by Luigi Celestino Spelta, then Apostolic Vicar of Hubei, appointed by Pius IX to reach the Emperor Tonghzhi (pronounced Tung gê) on his behalf; the projects for new contacts developed during the First Vatican Council or the approaches attempted by Leo XIII in 1882. And again, the negotiations of 1886 with the appointment of Msgr Antonio Agliardi as Apostolic Nuncio to China, which had to be withdrawn shortly after ; or the negotiations of 1917 which led to the appointment of a new papal representative in Sinis – this time identified with Archbishop Giuseppe Petrelli – which had to be annulled. The time was clearly not right and the pressure from the Powers had proved decisive. Monsignor Costantini placed himself ideally, with humility and decision, to repair the interrupted historical processes.

As I approach the conclusion of this brief excursus, I would like to repeat the words with which the Apostolic Delegate, meanwhile summoned to Rome for a new ministry, took leave of Beijing and testified to the spirit with which he had lived his mission in the country: “I left the Apostolic Delegation at 4 p.m. on October 26, 1930. Before getting into the car, I entered the chapel for a moment and addressed this humble prayer to the Lord: “I thank you, my God, for the assistance You gave me during these eight years of my stay in China. You used an instrument full of imperfections and faults. In truth, You wanted to show me that, if anything has been done for the Missions, everything belongs to You'” (With the Missionaries in China, vol. II, XLIX).
(Agenzia Fides, 21/5/2024)