VATICAN - Between memory and prophecy. Insights from the "Council of Shanghai" documents

Wednesday, 22 May 2024 mission   inculturation   local churches  

photo Teresa Tseng Kuang Yi

by Gianni Valente

(We publish the speech of the Director of Fides Agency on the International Conference "100 years since the Concilium Sinense: between history and present"
- Pontifical Urbaniana University, May 21, 2024)

Vatican City (Agenzia Fides) - The great missionary intuition of Archbishop Celso Costantini and the Council of Shanghai does not stop at declarations of principle, but takes concrete form in an infinite series of clear and detailed provisions, scattered in the norms, decrees and vows later approved by the Holy See and promulgated after the Council.

Brief introduction: the Concilium Sinense is like a river that flows along two "banks": the Code of Canon Law - which had been published in 1917, and whose guidelines are largely followed in the Council documents - and the Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud, published by Pope Benedict XV in 1919.
The texts of the Concilium Sinense are literally imbued with references to the 1917 Codex Iuris Canonici and Maximum Illud. This means that the Council walks in the wake of the great discipline of the Church, and it is precisely in this walk in the wake of Tradition, that bold and innovative solutions flourish, with those adaptations to particular situations that always constitute the strength and creative effectiveness of what is called the Missionary Law.

Many decrees, norms and wishes of the Council of Shanghai have a common thread: the urgency to free Catholic presences and works in China from anything that could make the Church appear as a para-colonial entity subject to foreign potentates. The need not to identify Christianity as a religious correlate of western imperialist policies is constantly reaffirmed.
I refer to some of these provisions.
- First and foremost, the Council asks foreign missionaries to renounce all involvement in political and commercial initiatives with their homeland and other foreign nations, and not to join political associations, except with the special dispensation of their bishop.

- Canon 25 states that the preaching and work of missionaries must avoid "confirming among the natives the deep-rooted prejudice according to which the propagation of the faith serves the interest of one nation or another".

- Inscriptions and signs on churches and mission houses must be in Chinese characters and must not contain references to foreign nations and peoples. All laws of the Republic of China must be respected by believers and missionaries.

- Regarding the provisions present in the so-called "Unequal Treaties" that still guarantee the protection of Catholic missions by foreign Powers, the Council refers the entire question of the so-called "Protectorate" to the decisions of the Holy See. In the meantime, it asks missionaries to resort as little as possible to help from external powers, specifying that this should only be done in cases of emergency that cannot be resolved in any other way.

- The first of the 26 ‘Vota’ issued by the Council appeals to a previous decree of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide (March 26, 1924) to request that flags and insignia of foreign nations, previously displayed, be removed from churches and missionary houses. This - the Votum explains - is to prevent Catholics who attend these churches and missions from being accused of anti-patriotism.

- In the decrees dedicated to the construction of churches and mission buildings (from §448 to § 453) the use of the Chinese architectural style is recommended, in order to distance itself from European architecture and not be assimilated with the neighborhoods of foreign legations, neighborhoods - it is emphasized - that appear "detestable" to Chinese citizens.

- The Council recognizes that love for one's own nation, including that of foreign missionaries, is legitimate and must be protected. But in the event of conflict between China and foreign countries, missionaries are urged to act cautiously and maintain an attitude of neutrality, preventing resentment towards foreign powers from damaging the missions.

- Missionaries are asked to cultivate friendly relations with the Chinese authorities, by increasing contacts in order to raise the esteem of the Church in Chinese society. "Thanks to good relations with the authorities," we read in canon 698, "prejudices are dispelled, persecution is sometimes avoided and benefits for the Church are more easily obtained".

- Many norms and decrees contain provisions also aimed at freeing missionaries from customs which seem to be legacies of the colonial era. The principle – expressed, for example in canon 18 - is that "No institution must consider the mission as its own business, nor consider the mission as the property of its institutions".
One of the most emblematic provisions in this regard is the abolition of prostrations and rights of precedence in public events.

Before the Council, the baptized had to prostrate themselves before the missionaries as a sign of respect. This practice was also justified by a reference to Chinese ceremonial reserved for people in positions of authority. Canon 54 of the Council abolishes prostrations and replaces them with a simple bow of the head, in accordance with the custom currently prevailing in the Republic of China. This change was strongly desired by Constantini who, upon his arrival in China, had been disturbed by the spectacle of the prostrations reserved for missionaries.

The norms and decrees of the Concilium Sinense require many other things from missionaries. They urge them to study the local language in depth, so that they can speak Chinese fluently and correctly, without settling for rough scraps; they remind them that they should not criticize the habits, customs and laws of the Chinese people; regarding clothing, missionaries are reminded to dress according to their religious habit, avoiding wearing secular Western-style clothes; missionaries are also reminded to avoid encouraging the study of their native language.

But the acts of the Concilium Sinense are not a manual for correcting the errors of the past. Every page of the acts looks to the future. It searches for an escape from the ballast of colonialism in order to ask more fervently for a young missionary and indigenous Church to flourish in China.
The Concilium Sinense repeats that a Church can be said to be truly rooted in a place when it is self-sufficient, with its own church buildings and indigenous clergy.
Canon 131 provides that no ecclesiastical office should be refused to indigenous priests who prove themselves capable of exercising it. Canon 132 calls for an early search for candidates for the episcopate among Chinese priests.
Behind the calls to cultivate fraternal relations between priests, it is also necessary to imagine the tensions between missionaries and indigenous clergy, in the context of a Church led by Bishops who all come from other countries. At times, the sense of arrogance of members of missionary congregations towards indigenous priests went so far as to assume discriminatory tones with hints of racism.

The Concilium Sinense encourages the founding of indigenous religious congregations. The creation of expert committees for the translation of the Holy Scriptures into Chinese and other committees for the development of catechisms, school books and press bulletins is on the agenda. 58 articles are dedicated to schools and educational works. Others are dedicated to works of charity, emphasizing that these works are not welfare undertakings, and that in charity towards the poor and the afflicted the "glory of God" and his work "for the salvation of souls" shines.
Many canons are reserved for the laity, with the urgency of encouraging the birth of lay associations and especially the work of catechists. Title 47 dedicates 8 canons to catechists, asking them to be well prepared and animated by apostolic fervor, so as not to be considered by non-Christians as mercenary employees of preaching.
In the absence of priests, the lay people responsible for the community also have the mandate to celebrate baptisms, bless marriages and call the community to prayer.
Other interesting indications contained in Book IV (De Evangelizationis opere) are the invitation to the Vicars to write "frequent and brief" pastoral letters to follow the progress of the community as fathers, as well as the call to ensure that ecclesial communion is structured in the collegial bodies established by the Code of Canon Law.
Canon 584 recalls the need to hold Councils, Synods, meetings of the clergy in the different vicariates, as well as periodic regional and plenary Councils, the latter at least once every 20 years.
Furthermore, one of the ‘Vota’ asks the Holy See to proceed with a new subdivision of the ecclesiastical regions and circumscriptions, going from the 5 existing regions to 17 ecclesiastical circumscriptions, corresponding in principle to the subdivisions of the civil provinces of the time.

The acts of the Concilium Sinense are full of notes and provisions aimed at showing respect and closeness to the Chinese people. It is recommended to promote the traditional Chinese virtues such as filial piety towards parents, while prohibiting Catholics from the practice of marriages planned by families for their children while still young. Distances from practices described as “superstitious” linked to funerals remain, as do the prohibitions relating to "Chinese Rites". Let us remember that the infamous question of "Chinese Rites" (as Archbishop Costantini defined it) has not yet ended. At the same time, we are asked to put aside any superiority complex with regard to Chinese cultures and customs.
Canon 709 recognizes that many superstitions grew on the basis of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, but it indicates that Confucius, Mencius and Laozi should be considered as philosophers who lived before Christ, who recognized and followed important values and which, while they certainly cannot be “deified”, should not be demonized or rejected either. There is a specific issue that seems full of implications for the work promoted by the Council in serving the Chinese people. These are the provisions made by the Council concerning the scourge of opium consumption, which, due to the criminal geopolitics of the Western powers, was claiming victims among the Chinese population. The Catholic Church, at the Council of Shanghai, gave detailed provisions to contribute to the eradication of this scourge. Vicars are invited to set up lay committees to lead campaigns against opium trafficking (Canon 431). The cultivation and consumption of opium are prohibited for Catholics (canon 432).
It is well known what the opium trade meant for China at the time in terms of relations with Western powers. England bombed Chinese ports and opened the famous “opium wars” to crush Chinese resistance to the drug trade. This was one of the criminal stages of the colonial policy towards China. At the Council of Shanghai, the Church's choice appears clear.

One final note: the Concilium Sinense was virtually ignored by the missionary press at the time. The most important magazines in this editorial sector limited themselves to republishing an article from L'Osservatore Romano. They reserved more or less the same treatment for Maximum Illud. A hundred years later, we can say that they missed a good opportunity to do their job. Closed in their stereotypes, the publishers of missionary magazines of the time did not realize what was passing through their hands. They did not realize that, somehow, even within the Council of Shangha, a reverberation of the mystery that makes the Church live and walk through time had been felt. (Agenzia Fides, 22/5/2024)