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.
Pope Francis is in no position to compromise on this.
The Vatican learned horrific lessons in the past century about compromise with totalitarian states on the naming of bishops. Pope Francis himself, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, stoutly rebuffed the dictates of the Argentine government and its strong-willed president on matters of morality.
He experienced the evils of the military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. Although, indeed, the Vatican has a concordat with the government of Argentina which gives civil authorities “right of consultation” in the appointment of bishops. “Consultation” is already part of the Holy See’s modus vivendi with Beijing.
China’s Bureau of Religious Affairs has on occasion reached informal agreement with Rome on suitable bishops of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. However, Beijing judges that the Vatican has no leverage in the matter.
If the Catholic Church ever wants to flourish in Communist China, it will have to relinquish its control of bishops to the Chinese government. Pope Francis comprehends this more acutely than any other pope. A Jesuit knows well not to fritter away bargaining power.
Without its Apostolic Nunciature in Taipei, the Holy See has no leverage in Beijing. If Pope Francis were to give up Taipei, Beijing would pocket the concession and there would be no incentive for further negotiation.
Consequently there is little chance that the Holy See will give up its Taipei nunciature without Beijing’s prior guarantees of the church’s freedom in China, and there is no prospect of that at all.
On March 19, Pope Francis received President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) happily and “with every honor” as the head of state of the Republic of China for the inaugural Papal Mass.
Ma was seated among 47 other heads of state and government in the company of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Vice President Joseph Biden, a reminder that Taiwan remains central in the Holy See’s Asian diplomacy.
Similarly, the Vatican is central to Taiwan’s diplomacy in Europe, a centrality that would dissolve if Taipei were to relinquish its sovereignty in an accommodation with Beijing.
Not until 30 years after Xavier’s death, in 1583, was a permanent Jesuit mission under Matteo Ricci permitted into China. Jesuits remained in China for another 200 years, through a dynastic succession, the collapse of empire and the rise of the Republic.
The Catholic Church in China has flourished in toleration and persecution through five centuries since Francis Xavier’s death on Sanchoao.
Pope Francis now approaches the challenge of the Catholic Church in China in the context of that history.
John Tkacik is the director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia.