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Macau marks 440th anniversary

MACAU (SE): On January 23, Macau, the City of the Holy Name of God, celebrated the 440th anniversary of the edict proclaimed by Pope Gregory XIII declaring the fledgling Portuguese settlement on the southern edge of China a diocese, which was to grow to be one of the most important Catholic influences in Asia.

The diocese celebrated with a Mass at the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, which took on an added importance, as Bishop Stephen Bun-sang, a former auxiliary from Hong Kong, was installed as its bishop, replacing the retiring Bishop José Lai Hung-seng.

Today, the diocese is but a shadow of its original self which was sliced out of Malacca in 1576. At that time, it embraced the whole of China, Japan, the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan and Vietnam, as well as the Malay Archipelago, with the exception of The Philippines, and the former Portuguese colony off Australia’s north coast, now known as Timor Leste.

While the original territory has been divided into 100 jurisdictions, it is still an important Catholic presence in the area.

Macau soon began to leak territory. Funai, which is in today’s Kyoto district of Japan, was the first to go in 1588. It was followed some 60 years later in 1659 by Nanjing in China, Tonkin in Vietnam and Cochin in India.

In 1841 Hong Kong was separated, then Guangdong in 1848 and Timor Leste in 1940, with the creation of the diocese of Dili. The process was complete in 1981 when the parishes of St. Joseph in Singapore and St. Peter in Malacca were separated.

From its founding, it had been a suffragan diocese of Goa, but in 1975 became exempt when Goa ceased being Portuguese territory, and since 2003 has answered directly to the Holy See.

Today, its territory is confined within Macau’s borders and the diocese incorporates six parishes and three quasi-parishes, with a Catholic population of some 30,000 people.

In the mid-16th century, Portuguese traders began arriving in the Macau area and in 1557 they made an agreement with China to establish a settlement for which rent was paid each year.

It was an amicable agreement, as China was thankful for the Portuguese effort in countering piracy and permission was given to set up an international port, which for centuries was a gateway for commercial, as well as religious and cultural learning.

Early records show that by 1565 there were some 5,000 Catholics in Macau, and it boasted three churches and a hospital for the poor. In addition, a charity hall had been set up.

The bulk of the Catholics were described as being Portuguese families and their slaves, who mostly were armed security guards from Japan or India, as well as a small handful of local Chinese people.

Although not a large group, they created a strong impression and Chinese scholar, Ye Quan, described their religious fervour in Buddhist terminology.

“They worship the Buddha devoutly. Foreigners read their books from left to right and speak strange languages. Every three to five days they go to the temple and listen to the talk on Karma by foreign monks,” he wrote.

It is recorded that the Portuguese built houses and temples (churches) without the permission of the Chinese authorities and by 1568 Bishop Melchior Miguel Camiero Leitão, who administered the affairs of the Church prior to it being made a diocese, had added two hospitals and a charitable society to the local infrastructure.

He continued his duties after the proclamation of the diocese, even though he was never appointed as bishop, as it took some years for the first bishop appointed by Rome to arrive.

As a diocese, it received some stability with the arrival of the Jesuits in 1572 and between the arrival of Father Matteo Ricci in 1582 and 1594 a seminary was set up and missionaries were being sent out, mostly to Japan.

The Franciscans came as well, but were initially expelled, and then the Augustinians became the third group to have a presence in the colony. 

In 1594, the famed St. Paul’s Seminary was opened by the Jesuits and operated until 1728.

While the seminary primarily prepared priests for the Japan mission, the St. Paul’s Primary School boasted some 20 local vocations and, if those who also studied in Europe were added in, 34 in total.

Although the seminary closed in 1728, the desire to stretch out a missionary hand to neighbouring areas is still strong in the Macau Catholic community and it remains an important missionary hub.

From the early days, the Church developed a strong social work outreach, helping many a merchant and people among the arriving crowds who found themselves in difficulty.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, medical ministries were greatly strengthened by the arrival of Protestant doctors and surgeons, who helped lay the foundation of modern medical practice in China.

Opposing the opium trade was high on the agenda and much work was done in treating addicts in the colony, an apostolate that helped galvanise public opinion against the lucrative trading in the drug.

The first settlers in Macau, which was known in Chinese as Ou Mun (Trading Gate), were mostly fishermen and merchants buying and selling silk.

Macau has always been an important meeting place of western and eastern cultures, and remains so to this day, although on a much smaller scale, as this is often overshadowed by its casino industry.

In other ways it remains the backwater it became when Hong Kong was set up in the 1840s, but is still a unique society with an important political and religious standing, as well as a rich history, much of which is told in the beautiful churches and exquisite architecture of the old buildings that adorn its landscape.


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