Print Version    Email to Friend
The Cross is Red

ROME (SE): A culture, especially one as old as China’s is not quickly replaced and certainly not by a flimsy ideology, Richard Madsen, from the University of San Diego in the United States of America, explained at the introduction of a symposium in Rome under the title, The Cross is Red.
Setting a slightly optimistic tone for the event sponsored by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions on the World Day of Prayer for China, May 24, Madsen portrayed a cultural life in China that has proven to be far stronger than government attempts to break it down.
In setting the scene for the series of speakers that addressed the life of the Church from several different aspects, Madsen said that despite official figures, there are hundreds of millions of people in China who hold onto some type of religious faith.
The secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation on Peoples, Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai, spoke with surprising candidness about the worldliness of some influential figures in the Church, while Father Gianni Criveller reflected on a selection of salient aspects of history and an unnamed priest from the mainland told it like it is.
Madsen noted that the failure of Marxist ideology to adequately substitute for culture has left the way open for religious faith to prosper, despite various attempts the government has made to repress or even eradicate it.
“Marxist ideology was too thin to substitute for the multiple dimensions of Chinese culture,” Madsen told the gathering. “Marxism and capitalist consumerism tried to flatten its multi-dimensionality, but they failed.”
He described Catholicism, like other forms of Christianity, as an integral part of the Chinese social ecology, which contrasts vividly with the plan for the great renaissance of the Chinese people under a common culture introduced by Xi Jinping.
However, he noted that this is destined to fail, as in reality it is nothing more than a blend of homogenised traditional values and Marxist ideology under the control of a unitary state.
Madsen stressed that irrespective of the intentions Xi may have had in introducing the push for the Chinese Dream, a one-dimensional, rigidly unified culture could only superficially cover the dynamic diversity of the multi-dimensional lives of the Chinese people.
He explained that over the past five to 10 years a new emphasis has been placed on nationalism, as the government must continually search for new ideologies in order to legitimise itself.
He said that previously, the administration of Mao Zedong looked to Marxism and Leninism, but today, although the language is still in use, it is no longer compelling.
“The party now has new functions,” he said. “It is a revolutionary party, but President Xi Jinping calls it a ruling party and so it needs a new base to legitimise itself.”
However, nationalism must call on the history of civilisation to support it and this also includes a religious heritage, which is being redefined as intangible cultural heritage, rather than the old tag of feudal superstition.
Because the new tag upgrades this, as cultural heritage is part of the wisdom of the Chinese people, a new tolerance is called for.
Nevertheless, there is a catch, as some religions are not regarded as having any cultural roots in China and therefore are treated with suspicion. Christianity and Islam fall under this banner.
Archbishop Hon spoke of the scourge of what he termed grey pragmatism, a belief that what works must be true. He noted that it is a question Pope Francis has addressed in the context of clericalism, which turns what is supposed to be a vocation into a career.
But the Hong Kong-born archbishop pointed out that the big temptation of grey pragmatism is the opportunistic moments, which lead to the fraying of boundaries in decision-making.
He spoke of one priest who ordered a newly baptised person go to confession because she refused to welcome an illegitimately ordained bishop that the priest hoped would bear many gifts.
A priest from China, who was not able to attend the symposium in person, backed up Archbishop Hon’s claims in a paper he submitted. He told of a petty official in his city who invites bishops to come and bless a factory each year.
“Each one gets 3,500 RMB ($4,200). One year, 21 bishops turned up!” he related.
He added that the government plays on the desire for financial power and status to lure bishops and priests into its net. They then say whatever they can to please the government.
He added that everything is monitored, even bible study sessions, as officials control who may teach in them, how many can come and fiddle with schedules.
Archbishop Hon also told of a bishop who one sister described as incompetent and furtive in his dealings, and whom young sisters did not like being around because he was a bit touchy feely.
However, the sister lamented that they could not go to the authorities for help, the usual thing to do, because the bishop is their man, so they would not get a hearing.
Archbishop Hon went on to explain the sophistry that priests, especially younger ones are subjected to by government authorities, giving them an official take on the virtue of following its way.
One of the highlights of the symposium was a presentation by Father Criveller of a book published by Father Sergio Ticozzi on the history of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in China.
Father Criveller called the task that Father Ticozzi had set himself ambitious, as he tried to squash the experiences of 263 priests over 150 years into 150 pages, but added it would be over ambitious on his part to try and summarise it in the time allocated to his talk.
But the ever astute in his public presentations missionary contented himself with concentrating on what he sees as the strong point of the presence of his congregation in the China mission: its great enthusiasm and generosity.
“Such enthusiasm and generosity showed itself in the middle of a tragic situation that affected people, especially women and children,” Father Criveller said. “Only the missionaries did something for them.”
He continued, saying, “Many converts were moved by the help they received from the missionaries. This lesson remains valid for the Church even today. What brings people to faith in Jesus is the show of love.”
Father Criveller explained that he believes that there has been a continuity in this generosity that was exemplified when China began to open up again under Deng Xiaoping and “a continuity in the life of the Christianities founded by the Pontifical Institute must not be underestimated or concealed.”
Nevertheless, he pointed out that not everything has been rosy and Father Ticozzi also highlights the flaws and limitations of the mission of the Catholic Church in China.
He tells of the interference of the French government in establishing its protectorate in China in order to further its colonial ambitions, which eventually prevented Pope Leo XIII from forming diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1886.
“The Holy See felt all of its weakness, a power without power, the victim of those who wanted to help it,” Father Criveller said.
But most of all, he added that one extremely important factor must never be overlooked: martyrdom.
“This is no accident,” he said, “but the daily condition of Christian life.” In fact 20 members of his congregation are listed among the martyrs of China.
“But the fate of Chinese priests and believers is even more painful than that of missionaries. Their detention and their humiliation has lasted longer and has been more devastating,” he pointed out.
Father Criveller described the fact of martyrdom in the Church in China as an obvious thing, which has long coloured the cross of salvation in the country red.

More from this section