VATICAN - Cardinal Tagle: the "new beginning" of the Council of Shanghai and the mission of the Church today

Tuesday, 21 May 2024 cardinal tagle   mission   inculturation   synodality  

We publish the speech of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Pro-Prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization, who concluded the International Conference "100 years since the Concilium Sinense: between history and present" (Pontifical Urbaniana University, May 21, 2024)

At the end of this day of conference on the Council of Shanghai 100 years after its creation, so rich and full of surprising ideas, I do not think that it is possible or perhaps even useful to take stock or summarize the content and themes covered.

We have verified how the Council of Shanghai itself cannot be relegated to history as something to be archived. Indeed, the questions it raised, the problems it addressed and the solutions it proposed are, so to speak, still relevant today, even if we take into account the changing times.
It is therefore appropriate that discussion and dialogue on many of the topics covered remain open, even in the multiplicity of different perspectives that emerged in this Conference.
In this presentation I will try to recall some of the many aspects which make this synodal experience still full of suggestions for the present and future of the Church's mission as it progresses in the history of the world, as well as for the present and future of the Catholic communities of China.

A) The Primum Concilium Sinense represents a realization, a fruitful fulfillment of the call to synodality that marks our ecclesial present.

In the solemn procession that inaugurates the Council of Shanghai, 45 prelates wear mitres. Among them, 17 French, 10 Italians, 5 Spanish, 5 Belgians, 4 Dutch, 2 Germans and 2 Chinese. There are also Augustinian Fathers, Jesuits, Vincentians, Dominicans and members of missionary institutes from Paris, Milan, Parma, Ireland and the United States.

The Apostolic Delegate Celso Costantini, who presided over the Council at the request of Pope Pius XI, in his opening speech, as Father Anthony Chen Ruiqi, cited Eusebius of Caesarea to compare the Synodal Assembly of Shanghai to the Council of Nicaea, where "those who were far away saw themselves gathered together".

Costantini then declared that the Concilium Sinense marked the epoch of a "Chinese palingenesis".

Beyond emphasis, it is also true that there had never been, in one of the so-called "mission" countries, such an important and varied ecclesial assembly in terms of cultural, national, linguistic and ecclesial backgrounds of the Council Fathers.

The Council Fathers of Shanghai could not have known it, but their Council was, in a certain way, a kind of Vatican II Council “Ante litteram” on Chinese soil. In Shanghai, synodality appeared not as a secondary dimension, but as a constitutive and indispensable dimension of the life of the Church.

As Pope Francis recalled on September 18, 2021, addressing the diocese of Rome, " We can talk about the Church as being “synodal” - as the Acts of the Apostles teach us - without reducing that word to yet another description or definition of the Church".

As at Nicaea, and as at the Second Vatican Council, synodality in Shanghai did not manifest itself through generic exhortations or abstract declarations of principle, but was exercised through concrete and shared decisions, around questions of particular interest.

In his speeches and memoirs, Father Costantini repeats that the aim of the Council was to provide the Church in China with a "Missionary Code" for the present and the future, at the heart of which - as Gianni Valente reminded us - there is the pressing call to periodically hold synods and councils in individual vicariates, at the regional and general level.

B) The first Concilium Sinense shows how the mission of the Church protects and promotes the dignity of peoples and their cultures.

Maximum Illud and the Council of Shanghai reaffirm with determination that the joyful proclamation of the Gospel is witnessed by the Church in the midst of all peoples and to all peoples, with friendship and deep sympathy for their expectations and wishes. It must be done without political, social or cultural pressure in order to impose one's hegemony and relevance.

Pope Benedict XV had stigmatized the missionaries committed more to increasing the power of their terrestrial homeland than to their "homeland in heaven" as an authentic "Plague of the apostolate". The Christian message - Maximum Illud repeated - is not by nature "foreign" to any people and to any human community.

Today we learned that many decrees from the Council of Shanghai aimed to prevent Christianity from being further presented and perceived as a religious ideology imposed by other civilizations, or as a form of religious imperialism.

This awareness has reached us.

Saint John Paul II, in Novo Millennio Ineunte, wrote that Christianity "will also bear the face of the many cultures and peoples in which it is welcomed and rooted". And Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium n°116, reiterated that whenever a community receives the message of salvation, the Holy Spirit enriches its culture with the transforming power of the Gospel". This is why - continued the Pope - "Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression", and the Church, in her missionary work, also takes up the values of different cultures and people, which "enrich the way the Gospel is preached, understood and lived". And "while it is true that some cultures have been closely associated with the preaching of the Gospel and the development of Christian thought, the revealed message is not identified with any of them", and in evangelization "it is not essential to impose a specific cultural form, no matter how beautiful or ancient it may be, together with the Gospel".

This is why, underlines Pope Francis (n°118), "we cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture. No single culture can exhaust the mystery of our redemption in Christ".

Already at the Council of Shanghai, Costantini's missionary sensitivity recognized the urgency of applying what can be defined as the "method of adaptation". It took into account the cultural and also political reality of China, then in the midst of change and full of unknowns, and recognized the need to get rid of what Costantini's scholars define as "Westernism", that is, "the aptitude to transfer all the cultural coverings of Western Christianity to the new Churches which were emerging among non-European peoples".

It is precisely the passion for the proclamation of the Gospel that led to the recognition that, in the time preceding the Council itself, erroneous paths had been taken.

The confusion, often experienced, between missionary works and the colonialist strategies of Western powers had been detrimental to the mission.

Anything that helped identify Christianity as a religious banner of external policies and interests fueled distrust, hostility and even hatred toward the Church and missionaries.

The works and documents of the Council of Shanghai - as we have heard from several speakers today - are marked by a permanent concern for openness to the values of Chinese culture and sociality.

The distinction between the proclamation of the Gospel and the cultural forms in which it takes place, together with the openness to valuing and respecting the cultural traditions of different peoples, marked the ecclesial renewal of the Second Vatican Council.

Today, when the geographical distances between peoples have become relative, this criterion of orientation is called upon to face new developments, such as those of the so-called “hybridization of cultures". Indeed, the different cultural, social, ethnic and religious traditions and affiliations must not be used as an identity banner to counter the trends towards the homologation of globalization, and become the breeding ground for atrocious conflicts.

The experience of the Council of Shanghai, and then that of the Second Vatican Council, suggest other paths, namely the possibility that cultural traditions do not close in on themselves, in irreducible opposition to others, but remain open to encounter, to exchange and mutual learning, with a view to enrichment for the benefit of the entire population, and not just qualified elites.

"Homo sum; humani nihil alienum a me puto". I am human, I think that nothing human is foreign to me. This famous phrase from the Latin author Terence refers to the vast and universal horizon where identities can be offered and enriched in mutual exchange, for the benefit of all and the entire human family.

It is that horizon of universal fraternity that Pope Francis also indicated in the Abu Dhabi Document and in the Encyclical Fratelli Tutti. It does not erase but embraces cultural identities and traditions, their possible encounters and their possible "contamination". Outside this horizon, this universal openness, even today's calls for 'indigenization', or local specificities, can degenerate into forms of self-enclosure, introversions incapable of dialogue and thus, in the long term, in sterile and unsuccessful narcissistic retreats. Indeed, every true cultural identity is always on the move!

C) the fruit of evangelization: a truly local Church, in communion with the Bishop of Rome and the other local Churches

At the time of the Council of Shanghai, the urgency of abandoning dead-end roads and favoring a new beginning of the missionary work did not become - as Cardinal Parolin recalled - a sort of trial of history, and of the history of missions.

As we know, in certain missionary circles, the Council of Shanghai aroused discontent and criticism, as was the case for the Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud, accused of ingratitude towards the work of the missionaries.

But that was not the case. Indeed, in the Magisterium of those years and in the provisions of the Council of Shanghai, the holy life and the selfless apostolic dedication of so many missionaries were always recognized as essential elements of evangelization. It was added that their achievement should be constituted by the flourishing of the local Churches, the Chinese bishops and priests should be entrusted with the leadership of the local communities, as had happened throughout the history of the Church.

This is how a Chinese and missionary Church was born. A Church which lives its indigenous physiognomy and identity not as a withdrawal into itself or a closure, but always in openness to the universal Church and other local Churches. An opening guarded and guaranteed by the Holy Spirit in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter.
It is also with this in mind that the Council insists that it is urgent to increase the role of the local clergy as soon as possible, and not to exclude indigenous priests from any role of responsibility. It was not a question of imposing new balance of power between the missionaries and the Chinese priests, nor for tactical reasons, that is to say to try to please the growing Chinese nationalism.
Rather, the hope was that the seed sown by the missionaries could be fruitfully cultivated by priests and pastors belonging to the Chinese people and that - as Pope Francis reminded us in his message - the proclamation of salvation could reach people and communities by speaking their “mother tongue”.

D) Celso Costantini, a prophetic figure in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci

And now, in conclusion, I would also like to dedicate a few words to the man who humanly was the director of the Council of Shanghai: Archbishop Celso Costantini, Papal Delegate and Papal Legate to the Council.
Everyone has already talked about him, especially Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Professor Liu Guopeng.
The Apostolic Delegate Celso Costantini, when he left China, came to work in our Dicastery, at Propaganda Fide. He became Secretary of the missionary Dicastery and later, Cardinal.
This servant of the Church - as already underlined - interpreted the presence at the Council of Shanghai of missionary bishops from all over the world as a sign of the fact that all the Churches in the world were interested and lovingly involved with what was happening to Catholics in China.

The path of the Church - as the Pope said in his Video Message - has passed and continues through unforeseen paths, times when we can taste "the bread of affliction and the water of tribulation" of which the Prophet Isaiah speaks.

I believe that Constantini and so many Fathers of the Council of Shanghai would be happy to recognize that today the community of baptized Catholics in China is fully Catholic and fully Chinese.
They would also be happy for the affection and creative eagerness with which so many Chinese Catholic communities follow the suggestions and pastoral indications that reach them from the Church of Rome and its bishop, Successor of the Apostle Peter.
In continuity with Cardinal Costantini, we too, at the Dicastery for Evangelization, really take to heart everything that concerns our Chinese brothers and sisters, and we perceive that their affairs have something important to show and share with the entire universal Church.
There may be problems, misunderstandings, incidents, but there is never lukewarmness or indifference towards the path of the Catholic Church in China.
Today, our brother Bishop Joseph Shen Bin is also with us here in Rome. Those who have followed the events of the Church in China and its past history know what this means.
We give thanks to the Lord, who has guarded and embraced this path even in trials.
(Agenzia Fides, 21/5/2024)