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Who was pope addressing in New Year message?

Pope Francis’ recent interview, published on the online news site Asia Times, on February 2, was more than just a mere Lunar New Year greeting to the Chinese people.

Speaking to Italian journalist and senior researcher at the Renmin University in China, Francesco Sisci, it was the first occasion on which the pope had specifically said anything about China.

While Chinese media reports of the English interview went viral on the Internet among Catholics both in and outside of China, those who searched for a full Chinese transcript, hoping to read more on what the pope had said, found nothing.

While this may have had to do with commercial copyright decisions on the part of Asia Times, without a full Chinese transcript Pope Francis missed an opportunity to directly address the some 1.3 billion Chinese people who were, after all, the subject of the interview.

The people being talked about were left out.

We all know that Pope Francis has a strong desire to enter into dialogue with China.

However, it is worth asking if his Vatican media advisers ever thought about using the interview to dialogue with ordinary Chinese people, the vast majority of whom do not know a foreign language.

It would have allowed them to understand Pope Francis better and not rely on interpretations from others to fathom the direction in which the pope is taking the Church.

When Pope Francis did a series of interviews in 2013 for the Italian Catholic magazine, La Civilta Cattolica, about himself, the Chinese section of Vatican Radio provided a timely translation.

The issue of language for Church documents and messages is a recurring challenge for Chinese Catholic communities and one that is often neglected.

For instance, the Chinese translation of the encyclical, Praise Be: On Care for Our Common Home (Laudato Si’), has only just been released and it is only a summary at that.

For Chinese people, language does matter. For Chinese Catholic people language matters even more.

Look at Father Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit pioneer in dialogue between east and west, whom Pope Francis has often referred to.

The Italian missionary is known to many people in China by his Chinese name, Li Madou, and through his writings in the Chinese language.

How can the local Church grow if people are not spoken to directly in their own language? 

How can it internalise the message of the faith and give expression to it?

Isn’t this the basis of the incarnation and inculturation of the gospel that the Church professes?

Today, language is not the barrier it was centuries ago thanks to advances in technology and education.

There are many Chinese Church workers and students in Rome who could help put together a good translation. 

Francesco Sisci, who interviewed the pope, is himself a sinologist with a doctoral degree from the Renmin University and has written books and articles on China.

There really should have been no difficulty in providing a transcript of the interview in Chinese.

Since the beginning of the third millennium, there has been a lot of talk about the future of the Church in Asia and Africa.

During Pope Francis’ maiden visit to Asia in 2014, he told participants at the Asian Youth Day celebration in Daejeon, South Korea, that young Asian people are the present and the future of the Church.

During his trip to The Philippines, the pope tried to speak the local language.

That was not for show.

The Church should use the language of the people to spread its message. This should be the first step for inculturation to take root.

The efforts of Father Ricci, perhaps, are something to remember.



Lucia Cheung 

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