“In the Far East and in various parts of the world, millions of men and women will celebrate the lunar new year. I wish that all may experience peace and serenity in the heart of their families.” With these words Pope Francis addressed his wishes to Chinese and East Asian people during the Angelus prayer, a few days after the publication of the interview for AsiaTimes (http://bit.ly/1KTQ8No) , which focused completely on China. The Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival is one of the most important and popular festivities in East and South-East Asia – we prefer these denominations having a less Eurocentric connotation -, primarily in China. To the interviewer – finally a sinologist who knows well ancient and contemporary China – Francis speaks of the “Middle Kingdom” with words of admiration, as a “great country” with a “great culture” and an ” inexhaustible wisdom”, a nation that has “a lot to offer the world.”
In the footsteps of his immediate predecessors, Pope Francis shows great attention towards China. What primarily distinguishes him from the other popes, however, is the fact of being a Jesuit and a Latin American. This definitely constitutes a “comparative advantage” that may help to have a greater margin of action in the long and thorny “Chinese issue”. Certainly, China associates the Jesuits with the idea of dialogue, openness, science, culture – embodied in a paradigmatic way in the great missionary Matteo Ricci, in Chinese Li Madou利玛窦. The fact that Pope Francis is not from the West of the colonial powers (which even today recall a very sad page of the Chinese history, a disgrace, an open wound) makes him appear to the Chinese people in a different way compared to his predecessors. Colonial powers which foreign missionaries often associated themselves to, in the eyes of the Chinese people. Contributing to this idea that persists even today, that Christianity cannot be anything but a foreign religion of the ” imperialist West.” There was a saying in the past: “One more Catholic, one less Chinese”, that was to emphasize the alien nature, almost an “incompatibility” between China and Christianity, at least in the Chinese imaginary.
Francis has undertaken with caution, but it seems with determination, the path of reconciliation and dialogue with China. Of course taking the important steps of his predecessors, especially the Letter to Chinese Catholics, which was perhaps conceived under the pontificate of John Paul II and realized by Benedict XVI. But softening the tone and leaving less room for voices undoubtedly authoritative, as monopolistic, that especially in recent years have only ever denounced the dark side of China. Certain tones, certain insistence, and certain ways to represent China by some who have risked to almost appear as “doomsayers” are not in line with the Church of Francis; a Church of dialogue, mutual respect, and mercy. The Church that looks at and works on “what unites rather than what divides.” The Church of the Second Vatican Council, which in the XXI century cannot continue to “bypass” China (often labeled with images that seem old from 50-60 years ago) and relate to China only through sentences and even excommunications, which have humiliated and hurt Chinese Catholics. The Great China of an ancient civilization, the China of Confucius, who lived 500 years before Christ and was a great teacher of moral and social harmony. China that generated the depth of thought, then evolved into a religious spirituality, of Daoism, characterised by a creative vitality. That China that received Buddhism from India, re-shaping it and mixing it with its own philosophical and religious traditions in a mutual enrichment. And in the modern era, China that first among the devoloping countries achieved the Millennium Development Goals and in the years 1990-2005 took out of extreme poverty over 470 million people. A concrete example to the world that poverty can be defeated if there is a political will. An achievement that the pope that took the name of Saint Francis of Assisi certainly has not overlooked – unlike so many, religious people, journalists and commentators in various capacities. Because Francis can count on very close people who know and understand China and are in line with him with respect to what strategy should be followed. Certainly the strategy of prudence and patience, but that does not mean closure and unwillingness to dialogue in order to find a compromise. Words that many do not like, those who do not see many realities, small and large, where mediation is the only way to move forward. Those that may also not know that the “middle way” is also a value of Chinese culture – the Doctrine of the Mean is one of the Four Books included among the Confucian Classics. The Chinese culture emphasizes harmony tending to seek it, to see it, even where there are opposites that in the Western view are irreducible. And often giving much attention to the form, the “ritual.”
For the Church that “goes forth” as indicated by Francis, this can be a great opportunity to capitalize on the dialogue. With a sincere respect for who has been and is now the counterpart, combined with a deep and pragmatic awareness. China, a “great country” that has made great achievements in socio-economic development and acquired an important place on the international stage. Not without “side effects” – i.e., the environmental issue, the sustainability of a development process that has been as radical as perhaps too fast, the growing social inequalities, the challenges associated with impressive internal migration, an aging population …. Not to mention the consumerism and the galloping materialism which are eroding family relationships and social relations, corrupting traditional values and jeopardizing the future of the younger generation. Problems that China itself has learned to recognize and now seeks to address.
Even Pope Francis shows once again to know all this. It is part of human history, the history of peoples, to pass “through lights and shadows” and a reconciliation is also needed with its own history, its past, says the Pope to China in the interview, but he also says that to all of us and to all Nations. The Church in China also deeply needs for reconciliation. The Church in China too (which is often represented with clichés, in a simplistic way and by whom he has never known it directly), has kept the faith in very difficult times. The whole Church, not only one side. A gift, a grace that is certainly the inspiration, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
We are sure and we pray that Pope Francis did not drop all this but values it, builds on it, brings it to completion, without lingering on entrenched positions. There is need to look and go further, to ensure that the Chinese Church is more and respectfully accompanied by the universal Church to better address new challenges – the same facing the Church (more generally the society) of the “Western world”, before it is too late. Secularism, the worldliness, careerism and materialism, individualism, which also invest Christians and may question their existential choices, undermining their witness of faith. And more intra ecclesia the problem of the formation (cultural, theological and spiritual) of the clergy and religious, lay participation and more generally the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, the role and the witness of Christians in society and in the world of culture , the proclamation of the Gospel in a context where Christians are a minority and where increasing prosperity begins to make more difficult among young people make radical lifestyle choices and of total donation to the Church ……
It is time to break down “old” walls of “enmity”, find points of convergence in the common values that can contribute so much to the construction of world peace, and also support the Chinese Church to become, with more prophecy, a Church that truly goes forth, as Pope Francis has been preaching tirelessly since the beginning of his pontificate.