VATICAN - New book on the figure of Cardinal Celso Costantini: "Bridge builder” with China

Tuesday, 18 June 2024

By Gianni Valente

Rome (Agenzia Fides) - "Especially towards the Chinese, I thought it appropriate not to confirm in any way the suspicion that the Catholic religion is under the protection and, worse still, a political instrument at the service of the European nations", said Cardinal Celso Costantini, a native of the northern Italian region of Friuli, in his memoirs on the peculiarities of his mission as First Apostolic Delegate to China, which lasted from 1922 to 1933.

In recent times, the development of relations between China and the Vatican and the agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China on the appointment of bishops have aroused interest and led to new studies on the figure of Costantini (1876-1958), a pioneer of dialogue between the Vatican and Beijing.
But even in recent decades, long before the agreement between China and the Holy See on the appointment of bishops, the memory of this brilliant and prophetic figure of the 20th century Catholic Church was kept alive thanks to the work and initiatives of his compatriot, Father Bruno Fabio Pighin, Professor at the Faculty of Canon Law "S. Pio X" in Venice and episcopal delegate for the canonization of Costantini.

A new volume edited by Professor Pighin now helps to explore lesser-known aspects of Costantini's multifaceted personality. The volume is entitled "Il Cardinale Celso Costantini e la Cina. Costruttore di un ‘ponte’ tra Oriente e Occidente" ("Cardinal Celso Costantini and China. Builder of a bridge between East and West"). The publication, published by Marcianum Press, was commissioned by the association "Amici del Cardinale Celso Costantini" ("Friends of Cardinal Celso Costantini"), which has already launched the permanent exhibition "Cardinal Celso Costantini and China", inaugurated in 2023 at the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art of the Diocese of Pordenone.

The new work on Costantini will be presented on Thursday, 20 June (5 p.m.) in the Aula Magna of the Pontifical Urbaniana University. Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Fortunatus Nwachukwu, Secretary of the Dicastery for Evangelization (Section for the First Evangelization and New Particular Churches), will participate in the presentation, together with Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, Secretary of the Dicastery for Legislative Texts. The Bishop of Cardinal Costantini's home diocese, Concordia-Pordenone, Giuseppe Pellegrini, and Professor Vincenzo Buonomo, Papal Delegate and Magnificent Rector of Urbaniana University, will deliver the initial greetings.

Pordenone, Fiume, Beijing, Rome

In the large-format volume, the various chapters written by academics and scholars shed light on the multifaceted personality of Costantini. From the years of his vocation to the priesthood in the diocese of Concordia-Pordenone - where he was also Vicar General during the First World War - to his pastoral activity as the first Apostolic Administrator of Fiume (now in Croatia), where in 1920-21 he prevented a bloodbath by opposing the plan of the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio and the Italian nationalists who wanted to reconquer the independent city. The historian Agostino Giovagnoli reconstructs Costantini's role as a "great herald of the Gospel" in China, while Adel Afif Nasr describes his contribution to the Council of Shanghai. In the second part of the work, Costantini is remembered as a protagonist of sacred art. The volume, which is accompanied by 150 photographs and illustrations, also presents the artistic works and the precious Chinese textiles left by the Cardinal, and also offers a valuable bibliographical overview edited by Simon Ee Kim Chong.

The "Costantini Method" and the Agreement on the appointment of Bishops

The publication and presentation in Rome of the new work edited by Pighin is part of a series of events dedicated to the centenary of the "Primum Concilium Sinense", the Council of the Catholic Church in China held in Shanghai from May 15 to June 12, 1924, whose main director was the then Apostolic Delegate Costantini. An important conference on the centenary of the Concilium Sinense, organized by the Pontifical Urbaniana University in collaboration with Fides and the Pastoral Commission for China, took place on May 21 in the Aula Magna of the Pontifical University. Among the speakers were the Bishop of Shanghai Joseph Shen Bin, Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Pro-Prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization (see Fides, 21 and 22/5/2024).
In the video message to the conference participants, the Pope highlighted the contribution made by Cardinal Costantini to the Council of Shanghai, convened at the behest of Pope Pius XI to revitalize the apostolic work on Chinese soil, to promote and accompany the growth of an indigenous Chinese Church and to oppose the colonial mentality that had also penetrated ecclesiastical practices. "Constantini," Pope Francis recalled in this video message, "simply stressed that the Church's mission is to evangelize and not to colonize."
At the Council of Shanghai, thanks also to the work of Celso Costantini, the communion between the Holy See and the Church in China showed its fruitful fruits, "fruits of good for the entire Chinese people."

Cardinal Parolin, in the prologue to the volume published by Marcianum Press, adds suggestive details that capture the full scope of the prophecy of what the Secretary of State calls the "Cosantini method".
After his years in China, Cardinal Costantini was Secretary of the Congregation for Propaganda Fide and in 1953 he was named Cardinal by Pius XII. The new volume on Costantini also recounts the patient and tenacious attempts he made as Apostolic Delegate to promote the emergence of direct relations between the Holy See and the Chinese authorities, and the systematic sabotage - almost always successful - by Western powers to prevent the Pope from negotiating with Beijing without intermediaries. "This path," says Cardinal Parolin, "set a direction that the Church continues to follow today, as happened with the provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China, confirmed in 2022.
This Agreement, already sought by Pope Benedict in 2007 and signed in 2018 under the Pontificate of Pope Francis, concerns the appointment of bishops in China, in ideal continuity with the first six Chinese bishops appointed in Rome by Pius XI and Costantini himself in 1926".
Today, also thanks to the agreement signed in 2018 and renewed twice, "all prelates in the Land of Confucius are in communion with the Successor of Peter and the universal College of Bishops".

The Cardinal Secretary of State also recalls the role played by Costantini after the first episcopal ordinations, which were carried out in China from 1958 onwards without papal mandate. In this moment, which was so painful for the ecclesial community, emphasizes Cardinal Parolin, "Cosantini advised Pope Pius XII not to look at the Chinese situation through European eyes, because it was not a 'schism'". A perspective that had concrete effects: in the 1958 encyclical "Ad Apostolorum Principis" with regard to Chinese bishops who were ordained without the Pope's consent, "there was no mention of 'schism' at all". In it, Pius XII reaffirmed the duty of the Chinese bishops to Chinese Catholics to love their homeland and respect its laws, which do not contradict the Christian faith and morals, in order to promote the harmonious development of the entire nation. The "Cosantini method", said the Cardinal Secretary of State, is also "a source of inspiration for the present". A perspective that is also "well illustrated" in the volume edited by the priest and professor Bruno Fabio Pighin. (Agenzia Fides, 18/6/2024)