Sat, Mar 30, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Catholicism’s challenge in China

By John Tkacik

As the Jesuit Francis gazed at the blue mountains of China not three leagues across the water, he drew his last conscious breath. In prayerful delirium, he succumbed to pleurisy just before dawn on Dec. 3, 1552, in a frigid shelter of vines and branches, just above Sanchoao Island’s Three Isles Bay.

Thus was the report of the Malaccan-Chinese Jesuit novice who remained at Francis’ side and supervised his temporary burial in what is now China. To the last, Francis had struggled unsuccessfully to bring Catholicism to the Ming Empire.

Four hundred and sixty years later, a Jesuit is elected pope. He is the first to choose the papal name “Francis.” Pope Francis tells us his choice was inspired by the poor “Penitent of Assisi,” who is the most revered saint by that name in the canon of the Catholic Church. Yet a pope rising from the Jesuit tradition is also profoundly inspired by Francis Xavier, the earliest Jesuit saint.

At his death, Francis Xavier was desperate to gain entry to the Ming Empire, despite imperial edicts that illegal immigrants would be imprisoned, lengthily tortured and executed; immigrant smugglers would be treated less cheerfully.

In 1552, Sanchoao was a rambling desolate island off the southern Cantonese coast just beyond the emperor’s writ. In summer, Portuguese merchants bartered their East Indies spices for Chinese porcelains, silks and lacquerware with Chinese mainland contraband runners.

That November, trading season at an end, Father Francis waited in vain for a junk owned by a Chinese merchant that was to smuggle him into the port of Canton. Once there, the Jesuit father planned to seek an audience with the imperial viceroy and beg leave to open a Catholic mission.

Then, as now, the Jesuits held China as central to spreading the faith in the Far East.

Father Francis reported in January 1552 his strategy to bring the Gospel to China.

“Chyna [is] … an extremely large land, peaceful and ruled by excellent laws … These Chynas are very talented and given to studies, especially human laws on the rule of the state; they are very eager to know, a freedom loving people and are particularly peaceful,” he said.

Having completed an unprofitable mission to Japan in 1551, Francis reasoned “if the Japanese learn that the Chynas have received the law of God, they will lose much sooner the confidence which they have in their sects.”

In the 21st century, Francis Xavier’s offshore Sanchoao hints that a Jesuit Pope Francis may see the church in Taiwan as a stage for the rebirth of the church in China.

For more than 30 years, the Catholic Church in Taiwan has covertly helped sustain the church in China, providing Mandarin texts and pastoral training to hundreds of discreet Chinese seminaries faithful to Rome.

However, central to the Holy See’s mission in China is the independence of the church from what it sees as totalitarian control by the Chinese Communist Party.

Beijing has firmly imposed two conditions for the Holy See to be accepted in China: First it must “cease interference in China’s internal affairs.”

Second, it must break relations with the Chinese government in Taipei. Unsurprisingly, Beijing demands that the second condition be fulfilled before the Holy See can discuss the first.

The Vatican cannot cede the appointment of bishops to the Chinese state, and Beijing is not confident that the Catholic Church in China will unquestioningly accept the “guidance of the Communist Party” without Beijing’s full control of the Chinese church’s hierarchy.

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