Alessandro De Carolis: Father Antonio Spadaro, with the signing of the Agreement between the Holy See and the government in Beijing, what changes for the Chinese Church?
Fr Antonio Spadaro, SJ: With this Agreement there are no longer those difficulties that had kept the Church divided between two communities. At this point, there are no obstacles to the communion of the Church in its globality in China, and in its relationship with the Holy Father. This is the objective achieved by this Provisional Agreement. At the same time, a process has been completed that has been going on for a long time, begun by John Paul II—[a process] that is, of legalization, of readmission to communion with the Pope, of Bishops who were ordained illegally, illicitly, that is, ordained by the government without the Pontifical Mandate. About 40 Bishops have been legitimated between the year 2000 and today; Francis has completed this work. Undoubtedly, it will also be an important passage for the mission of the Gospel. The Church, no longer divided, will be able to be more free, living a process of reconciliation, to proclaim the Gospel, which is the most important thing.
Q. Can the roots of this Provisional Agreement be traced back to the Letter that Benedict XVI wrote to Chinese Catholics in 2007?
A. Benedict had a very, very clear idea, and that is: we have to find a way to establish trust between the Chinese government, the Chinese authorities, and the Holy See. And trust would open up a space for dialogue, and gradually we would arrive at the point we have reached today. So, I would say that Francis has brought to completion the profound desires Benedict XVI wrote about in that very important document.
Q. We have spoken of a long past, involving suffering; we are speaking [now] of a new present, which is beginning with the best hopes. Trying to imagine the future, what would you say?
A. The future consists in the preaching of the Gospel. There are no other objectives in this Agreement. There is a pastoral dimension, therefore, that clearly bears in itself seeds of the future. So we should also understand what this signifies for the universal Church. For example, Benedict XVI, in his introduction to the book The Light of the World, published in a Chinese edition, hopes for a Chinese Christianity, that is, fully Christian and fully Chinese. What is this saying in terms of theology, of reflection, considering the great culture of this country to which Pope Francis has appealed many times, saying he felt admiration for this wisdom? I repeat, the fundamental challenges are challenges of a pastoral character. Today there is need to proclaim the Gospel, and probably, if we want it to, this Agreement will also be a sign, a sign of hope, a sign of peace in a world in which some people continue to build walls, especially between the West and the East.
Q. The signing of this Provisional Agreement has coincided with the first stage of Pope Francis’ journey to Baltic countries, his visit to Lithuania. Speaking with the authorities and with young people, the Pope said that it is important to guard the soul and rediscover the roots of a people. Would you say that this message could also be valuable for Catholics in China?
A. The message of Francis here in Lithuania, is certainly valuable for all Catholics, including Chinese Catholics. When the Pope here in Vilnius spoke about roots, he also spoke about welcoming and opening. That is, basically, one needs to recover one’s roots not so much to remain clinging to roots without these bearing fruit: one’s roots are roots of a tree which bears fruit. And the Pope has said with great clarity, especially upon landing in Vilnius, that this country is a country that, strong in its roots, has known how to welcome people of different nationalities, different languages, different religions. This is the future.
Q. The Society of Jesus has a very long history in China, which began several centuries ago – 500 years ago – with Father Matteo Ricci. What does the signing of this Agreement mean for the Jesuits?
A. For us Jesuits, this Agreement signifies so much, because we say that China is in the heart of every Jesuit. Matteo Ricci was a man who was formed in the Renaissance culture and, absorbing European culture, decided to go to China. And this – precisely his formation – allowed him to dialogue with the culture of this great country: he fell in love with it, absorbed it. And the Jesuits after him have come to understand this culture, have learned this culture, including Confucianism, and have passed it on to Europe. In this way they made Europe more Chinese. It is very striking how evangelization, for these early Jesuits, passed from profound love for the culture of a people. So there is not some desire for fundamentalist evangelization, or something like a cultural mission, but rather there is the desire to encounter a people and their ideas. It has also struck me very forcefully that the Global Times, which is an official Chinese newspaper, on the very day that the Agreement between China and the Holy See was signed, described Pope Francis as “the first Jesuit Pope,” and connected him directly to Matteo Ricci, saying that this man, like his predecessor, had and has a very flexible and dynamic relationship with regard to evangelization, capable of loving his people. This struck me because this is exactly the sense of the Agreement: building up trust, loving a people.
You can listen to the full interview, in Italian, by following the link.