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Vatican II comes late to China

Unity in the China Church still a far-off goal despite some progress

  • Bei Ji
  • China
  • May 30, 2012
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The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) was like renowned Chinese poet Du Fu’s poem: “Spring drizzle that moisturizes things quietly.”

It has been half a century since Vatican II opened. The council spirit affected profoundly the development of the Catholic Church, bringing it new challenges and solutions.

Regretfully, the China Church could not send any representatives to the gathering due to political constraints at that time.

It was only after religious activities were revived in the early 1980s that the China Church caught up to follow the guidance of Vatican II.

We can reflect on three perspectives.

The first is the change of liturgical language. I remember when I was at primary school I sometimes had to wake up at midnight to go with my parents to a neighboring village for feast day celebrations.

At that time, I did not know what the elderly priest was saying (murmuring). I could only see some elderly parishioners holding rosary beads in their hands reciting prayers continuously. The elderly priest standing at the far end would stop for a moment and turn around to say something with his eyes closed. And then he turned his back to us again.

I can still remember the phrase “saecula saeculorum [ages of ages].” Kneeling on cushions, we sometimes failed to hold our laughter as it sounded funny. We kids got bored quickly as we did not know the meaning of the prayer, and we could only wait for it to end.

As a result of Vatican II, Masses can now be celebrated in vernaculars. The Church in China started to celebrate Chinese Masses around 1990. This offered an opportunity for us kids who did not know Latin to become altar servers. We loved to go to church after school or during school breaks to assist the priests in the Mass.

When we returned home, we made our own small altars with corn stalks in the yard and pretended to be priests leading the liturgy.

The Vatican II decision encouraged Mass-goers to participate more in the Eucharistic celebration and choirs became popular. It also attracted more curious non-Catholics. Since people could listen to and understand the liturgy, this gave those who were suspicious or had reservations a chance to understand the Church more.

If the Chinese dioceses can strengthen formation on liturgy, it will help Catholics deepen their faith.

Secondly, Vatican II took emphasis on the Bible to a new level. We had never seen a Bible when we were young. We kids only heard elderly parishioners telling some Biblical stories.

We saw a Bible for the very first time in 1993, in the hand of a seminarian who was on his way to a class. My companions and I borrowed it and then copied the text by hand tirelessly.

The Protestant Church in China had been publishing a Chinese Bible since the religious revival in the early 1980s. This is one of the reasons for its rapid growth.

The number of Chinese Catholics reading the Bible has also increased gradually. Thanks to the internet, many people can have easier and daily access to the Gospel and other biblical resources.

An increasing number of Catholics cannot stay away from Bible reading. A small problem is that only the Studium Biblicum version is the most faithful translation in the Chinese-speaking Catholic world today, but it can no longer respond to the needs of different groups of readers.

I hope more capable people will commit themselves to translation work to help revive the China Church so that people can select a Chinese Bible version to read and receive the Good News as guidance for their spiritual life.

Lastly, Vatican II strongly advocated unity. However, some Chinese bishops and priests lack the ability to heal the wounds that have divided the Church for 50 years. This has also had a negative impact on evangelization.

Indeed, all of us should stop criticizing and focus on charity and reject the temptations of power. We should sit together and look for solutions.

As Pope Benedict XVI said in his pastoral letter, we should be brave on the road to unity, and thus bear better witness for God in the vast Chinese land.

All in all, we have seen the effects and deficiencies of the spirit of Vatican II on the China Church. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s opening, we sincerely hope all Chinese bishops would encourage their priests and nuns to learn more about Vatican II documents, through which we can look for a path for the China Church to bear witness to unity in this 21st century.

Bei Ji is the pen name of a priest in mainland  China

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