By Sergio Centofanti and Fr Bernd Hagenkord, SJ
Whether they be clerics, laity, or religious, all of Christ’s disciples have the mission, everywhere and in every age, of being light, salt, and leaven in the midst of the peoples, so that, seeing their good works, all might give glory to the Father who is in heaven. Can the mission of the Church in China be any different?
In fact, some observers in recent times have seen signs of a certain closing of China, especially toward the Western world, rather than a serene engagement. Others are asking how the Holy See can continue to trust in dialogue and negotiation, rather than adopting an attitude of blame or open criticism.
From what can be seen from the numerous interventions of the Holy See in the international sphere, especially in the context of conflict and crisis, the reason resides in the understanding that precisely where there is greater distance and risk of misunderstanding, dialogue is not only opportune, but becomes a necessary option. Moreover, it must be kept in mind that the Church has a responsibility of special care for its own faithful, particularly where they are found in a condition of more acute suffering. In fact, actions that for other institutions could be interpreted as a sign of “appeasement” or even “giving in”, are for the Church a moral duty and a sign of spiritual strength, which clearly respond to the demands of the Gospel.
In order to accomplish this mission in China, the Church has no need to request political privileges: it has only to be itself in an authentic manner. In fact, even in exceptional and extreme conditions, as when it lacks necessary freedom, the Church can find a way to carry out its evangelical mission.
On the other hand, difficulties and crosses are never lacking for the Church in any age or place. Indeed, it must be said that, even today, ideal conditions do not seem to exist even in the most democratically advanced countries.
However, what the Church cannot do without, and what cannot be substituted in any way, is the lack of faith, charity, and internal unity. It is for this reason that a special service of care for the unity of faith and charity exists in the Church: the Petrine ministry, exercised by the Bishop of Rome, the Supreme Pontiff.
The mission of the Church in China, in a land of almost two billion people, is first and foremost that of being present as a Church that is united, and therefore, credible. And to be present, wherever possible, in the life of the Chinese people: in every occasion, in every situation, every environment, every unfolding of history, sharing their destiny with humility, but also with the far-sighted vision of Christian hope, to create space for a better future for humanity, which can never be separated from the future that God Himself gives.
We are faced with great challenges in our times: the challenge of globalization, the challenge of improving well-being and quality of life; challenges for the environment; challenges to peace and human rights. There is the challenge, too, of a secularization built on consumerism, and of States that seek their own interests at the expense of others; the challenge of religious indifference, of the marginalization of the weak and of those rejected by society. It is precisely in the face of such challenges that the Church is called to be present, to proclaim Christ, who died and rose for the life of the world.
Put that way, all this seems simple and beautiful. One wonders how political authorities could ever fear Christians or place so many obstacles in their way, seeing that they are animated by such good intentions. In reality, one must take into account the concrete circumstances in which the Church lives. In these circumstances, it could happen that not only the errors and sins of Christians might be condemned, but even their good works might not be welcomed, at least at first.
The Chinese authorities, at times, seem to be coming to a greater realization that religion is not superstructural phenomenon destined to disappear with economic progress and greater social justice, but a constitutive part of being human. For this reason, the genuine religious experience becomes a vital factor for the harmonious development of persons and of society. Even in the advanced and complex society of the third millennium, such a presence demonstrates great vitality and a capacity for renewal.
In China one must consider that, according to the traditional Confucian philosophical vision, beside the teaching of values such as goodness, friendship, education, and obedience, there is also the idea that the State has the right to exercise the strictest control over every form of religion. On the other hand, the history of China in the 19th and 20th centuries includes a number of revolts, of various social and political stripes, against the governments of the times, in which various cultural and religious factors interacted. Leaving aside the political judgment about these historic phenomena, it should be noted that resulted in confusion and prejudice toward religion, to the detriment of those great religious traditions which in themselves have nothing to do with sectarianism or the politicization of religious sentiment.
Chinese culture and Chinese society are called to come to a greater understanding of the fact that irrational or fundamentalist approaches to human reality are totally foreign to the Catholic faith.