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Jubilee Year of hope for Catholicism in China


The year 2000 began on an ominous note for the Catholic church in China.

In the months leading up to this Jubilee Year, expectations of an imminent accommodation between the Chinese government and the Vatican had continued to build. John Paul II’s recent statements had signaled the church’s strong desire to overcome the long-festering history of mutual distrust. People close to the church in China took heart: An advance between the Vatican and China at this political level would help heal the divisions between Chinese Catholics worshiping in registered or “open” parishes and those in unregistered or “underground” communities. While this internal reconciliation was already well underway in many dioceses in China, the Jubilee Year would mark an ideal time to move the public reconciliation forward.

Then on Jan. 6 -- feast of the Epiphany -- the government-sponsored Patriotic Association hurriedly orchestrated the consecration of five new bishops for leadership in dioceses of the open church. To religious observers inside and outside China, this action, which continued a policy in direct contradiction to canon law, seemed like an intended insult to the Holy See. The anticipated detente between the Vatican and the Chinese government was thrown off course. So in the first days of this year, a profound pessimism overshadowed earlier glimmers of hope.

But as this Jubilee Year progresses, more optimistic signs continue to accumulate. In a recent return to China, we found strong signs of hope in three areas: the pastoral life of the open church; religious publishing; and developments in Chinese universities.

Since the reopening of the churches in the 1980s, the Catholic diocese of Beijing has grown slowly under the watchful eye of the government’s Religious Affairs Bureau. While more than 70 Catholic parishes have reopened in Shanghai over the past two decades, only 17 parishes currently function in China’s capital city. But the local community of faith shows many signs of strength.

A young priest, recently returned from Europe after advanced studies in canon law, now serves as vicar of the diocese. He is creating the first diocesan pastoral center in China with the assistance of a lay ministry colleague, a woman who devoted a year to scripture studies in a major Catholic university in the United States. Working with a skeleton staff and still lacking the facilities for a library and classroom space, they have designed an ambitious program of religious education and lay ministry training. Current offerings include an information class for interested non-believers, a well-subscribed program of marriage preparation, a youth volunteer service project, and a married women’s group that meets regularly for prayer and support. The pastoral center also sponsors a three-year sequence of lay ministry formation, which draws over a hundred participants from Beijing and surrounding areas in all-day Saturday sessions throughout the year.

Recent developments at Beijing’s two major seminaries offer another sign of hope. Over the past three years, a new generation of well-trained young priests has returned to China from theological studies in Catholic seminaries and universities in Hong Kong, Europe and the United States. Imbued with the ecclesial vision and pastoral perspectives of Vatican II, these men now serve as faculty members and spiritual directors in seminaries throughout the country. The challenges these men face, as they undertake the renewal of theological education in China after decades of persecution and neglect, are considerable. And they take up these tasks with courage and generosity.

At Beijing’s diocesan seminary, the theological faculty includes a liturgical theologian, a moral theologian and a church historian -- all returned within the past three years from graduate studies in the United States. The seminary’s spiritual director returned last year from theological studies in Hong Kong. In July, 10 seminary graduates were ordained. Renovations are now being completed in a larger facility, enabling the staff to welcome 20 new priesthood candidates for the fall semester. As this new semester begins, the seminary’s faculty expands to include a scripture scholar and a canon lawyer, both returning from U.S. theological studies.

In a southern suburb of Beijing, about 30 miles from the city center, a new national seminary stands. Currently educating 130 men, this theological center serves the many dioceses across China that have no local seminary. The faculty here includes theological specialists in scripture, church history, liturgy, spirituality and ministry, all trained in Catholic university and seminary graduate programs abroad. These men will soon be joined by other colleagues returning with graduate degrees in canon law and systematic theology.

Like their peers teaching in China’s diocesan seminaries, the young faculty at the national seminary have assumed responsibilities for theological formation and continuing education in the wider church community: traveling to offer workshops and short training courses in more remote areas, providing retreats for priests and sisters, and preparing newsletters for distribution across China by mail and Internet.

In the area of religious publishing, the Catholic publishing house in Shanghai issued a thousand-page encyclopedia of Catholic theology in March of this year. The book was prepared by an international group of scholars, under the direction of the Jesuit theology faculty of Fujen University in Taiwan. In Shanghai, the text was translated into the simplified Chinese characters used on the mainland.

The story of the book’s production provides a glimpse into the range and limits of religious freedom in China these days. The government requires a review of all theological works before the necessary permission for publication is granted. The review of the encyclopedia required that eight entries be deleted. All dealt with politically sensitive topics, such as communism, atheism and socialism. No changes were required in theologically substantive articles on topics such as faith, Jesus Christ or salvation. To the authors and editors in both Taiwan and Shanghai, eight deletions from over 700 entries seemed a manageable compromise. A first printing of 3,000 copies of the Catholic Encyclopedia will be distributed to bishops and priests, religious congregations and parishes throughout Mainland China.

Religious publishing houses in China are allowed, after government review, to print and distribute materials to their own members. But their publications cannot be sold in ordinary bookstores. Nevertheless, books on religious themes and theological topics are found everywhere in China, in state-run bookstores as well as new privately owned shops. And these religious titles, published by university publishing houses and small private presses, sell well in China today. Shelved in sections on history and philosophy, literature and social sciences, even current affairs, these publications respond to a growing and increasingly sophisticated interest in religion among many Chinese.

In addition, the past three years have witnessed extraordinary developments in the academic study of religion. As recently as three years ago, only one graduate program in religious studies existed in China. Located in the prestigious philosophy department at Beijing University, this program functioned as training ground for government personnel serving in the Religious Affairs Bureau, which is charged with oversight of all religious activities in the country.

Today, religion is the focus of classroom study and academic research in over 25 universities and government-sponsored research institutes, and this number is expanding rapidly. More significant than the numbers, the mood of this academic interest in religion has changed.

Earlier Marxist/Maoist evaluations of religion as a dangerous bourgeois illusion have been replaced by a fascination with the positive role of religion in the life of a culture. Max Weber’s work on the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, first translated in China in the 1980s, gave impetus to this interest. Now academic journals dedicated to the study of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, are multiplying. A lead article in the most recent issue of one of these journals considers “The Concept of God in an Age of Rationalism.” The article is supportive in its understanding of religious faith, concluding with reflections on Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship and a long quotation from Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

The Jubilee Year 2000, despite its inauspicious beginning, is emerging as a good year for Christianity in China. Perhaps another significant milestone has been passed in the long journey toward a more fruitful dialogue between the Catholic communities in China and the United States. March of this year witnessed the death, at age 98, of Chinese Cardinal Ignatius Kung. Kung was the valiant bishop of Shanghai who in the 1950s defied the new communist regime and paid for it with 30 years of imprisonment. Released from prison, Kung traveled to the United States for medical treatment in 1988. He remained in this country, leading a vigorous offshore attack against Chinese communism and against those Catholics in China who attempted any relationship with their country’s current government. The opposition of so formidable a leader chilled the interest of most American Catholics in assisting the church in China, even as the Chinese church struggled to embrace the reforms of Vatican II and to prepare a new generation of Catholics to participate in the moral reconstruction of their country. The passing of this courageous Cold War soldier of faith may signal a new season of mutual respect and cooperation between Catholics in China and the United States.

James and Evelyn Whitehead are Research Fellows in the EDS-Stewart Chair at the Ricci Institute of Chinese-Western Cultural History, University of San Francisco. During April in each of the past three years, the Whiteheads have lectured in universities in China under the sponsorship of the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia.

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000