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A foreigner with a Chinese heart

HONG KONG (SE): c was by far the most far-sighted of the modern day advocates of the need for the local Church in China to express the faith and the word of God within the cultural symbols and language of the local culture.
As the first apostolic delegate to China, he was a man well ahead of his time in terms of developing the Church that was then known as a foreign mission, and the tremendous contribution that he made to the maturing of the Church in China is now prompting significant numbers of Catholics to call for his beatification.
Born in 1876, Cardinal Costantini was nominated by Pope Pius XI as the first apostolic delegate to China in 1922, a position he held until 1933.
China of that era was in the midst of chaotic civil wars, while at the same time the control of much of the country was split up among western colonial powers with a neighbouring player on the block, Japan, beginning to flex its warring muscles big time across Manchuria.
It was precisely this web of colonialism and the protective legal fence that the French government placed around foreign missionaries, and to some extent local Catholics as well, that Cardinal Costantini saw as being the big diplomatic hurdle that the Vatican needed to jump in order to have constructive relations with the government in Beijing.
He also saw it as the one thing that stopped the Vatican making any progress in the country during its initial attempts to form ties with the government between 1885 and 1917.
In a paper posted on the UCAN website, Alexandre Chen Tsung-ming, the director of research at the Ferdinand Verbiest Institute in Belgium, says that strictly speaking, it was impossible to talk in any meaningful way about the Church in China, as it existed piecemeal in the pockets of the various colonial powers.
But the big power was France and the biggest obstacle was France, as it had its own uses for the Church in the Middle Kingdom and Cardinal Costantini began a difficult campaign to overcome a meddling Paris and turn local loyalties towards the pope.
Chen points out that first of all, the cardinal attacked Church leadership and the pope accepted his recommendation that six Chinese priests should be ordained bishops in 1924, the first local priests to move to that level of leadership in hundreds of years of Church life in the country.
He was also the first one to call a gathering of the bishops in China and that too happened in 1924, when a Chinese Council was convened in Shanghai.
How to express the faith in the language and symbols of the culture was one of the main agendas, which resulted in a discussion about how to develop fine Chinese-style Catholic art forms and foster local religious congregations of brothers and sisters.
If Cardinal Costantini was around today, he may even use the word Sinicisation, but he probably have been happier with indigenisation or perhaps even inculturation—but that word was not in vogue during his time.
Although what he was about is an important dynamic at all times and in all places, in view of what was to come in China, it has had an impact that would have been far beyond anything even the good cardinal himself could have imagined.
At the same time, he worked hard at lessening the influence that the colonial powers had on the life of the Church and sought to separate it from the so-called protective arm of France, setting new norms for both local priests and Catholics to follow.
Cardinal Costantini, above all people in China, understood clearly that the Catholicity of the faith lies in its ability to express itself in the language, signs and symbols of every culture and be lived out by every people in the world.
Between 1935 and 1953, he played an important role in liturgical reform, during which he had his own rites controversy to deal with, and on the delicate matter of what acceptance should be given to the Confucian rites of honouring ancestors, he made a big contribution.
However, Sinicisation as it is used today, has a radically different meaning from what Cardinal Costantini would have intended had he been the one to dream the word up.
In modern parlance, it has become a term for describing relations between the Chinese Communist regime and religious groups, sitting in the political sphere rather than the religio-cultural one.
But it also reminds people of Cardinal Costantini’s contribution to China.
The current process of Sinicisation that Xi Jinping talks about imposes political and legal measures on the Church that have nothing to do with Catholic doctrine or normal Church management.
Cardinal Costantini was about exactly the opposite, he saw the grave danger of the political ties the Church had with the colonial powers and worked hard to place religious life squarely in the Chinese cultural embrace in its expression and customs.
Currently the process of beatification for Cardinal Costantini is under way, which although it will be a long drawn out affair will have important lessons for the whole Church in terms understanding the life of local Churches in their own unique circumstances.
Because of the ties of the Church in China with the colonial powers the patriotism of Catholics is something that has always been under scrutiny, but Chen argues that there are plenty of examples of Chinese Catholic people putting their lives on the line for the love of their homeland.
During the Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945, Father Vincent Lebbe, who was rewarded with Chinese nationality, led teams of seminarians and sisters on the battle field as medics, but the Church had always been the butt of Japanese attack, as it was teaching the exact opposite to what the violent coloniser wanted people to hear.
The patriotism of Catholics has never been shaped by official government policy, but by faith in God and love of country, its history, culture and identity, but as Chen says at times they have been deprived of their nation’s affection and it was the foreign bishop with a Chinese heart who helped them express their true love of country.

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