A delegation from the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary-Missionhurst (CICM) wrapped up its June 2-8 pilgrimage to China last week aimed at cementing ties with Chinese bishops and dioceses in honor of the 150th
anniversary of the passing of CICM founder Theofiel Verbist. The group, led by Father Charles Phukuta, superior general of the CICM Missionaries, toured four CICM dioceses in northern China and delivered century-old religious relics to members of the local clergy as they also feted 35 years of cooperation between the Verbiest Foundation and the Chinese Bishops Conference. China has seen a religious revival in recent decades with tens of millions of Chinese now identifying at Christians despite a clampdown on church affairs by the officially atheist Communist Party. The central government sparked an outcry last month over its efforts to censor the biggest Catholic media outlet
in the country, Faith Weekly
, by banning reports on any pilgrimages made across the country this year. China, already the world's second-largest economy, is tipped to have the world's largest population of Christians by 2030
, according to some projections. Father Phukuta, CICM superior general (center), and his delegation were received by Bishop Ma Yinglin, Bishop Shen Bin and Bishop Guo Jincai at the Bishops Conference in Beijing. (Photo supplied)
Despite the clampdown, the delegation was reportedly unhindered during its trip which was capped with an honorary event at the Embassy of Belgium in Beijing.
This saw Ambassador Marc Vinck bestow the Commander of the Order of the Crown on the foundation's founder, Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, at the request of His Majesty King Philip of Belgium for the priest's efforts to develop friendly ties between the two countries since the early 1980s. The foundation is named after Verbist, a Belgian Jesuit-astronomer who established the CICM in 1862 after conceiving an initial plan in 1860 to assemble Belgian secular priests to travel to China to set up an orphanage there. In 1865 he traveled to Inner Mongolia via Hong Kong with four other priests but died of typhus in central China's Hebei province in 1868 while in his mid-60s after working at the Chinese court and devoting time to helping impoverished and orphaned children. The CICM is now active in China, Mongolia, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa. During the recent pilgrimage, part of which was joined by Ambassador Vinck, the priests celebrated a Sunday Mass at Nantang Cathedral, prayed with local congregations in each diocese, visited the city of Laohugou in Hebei where Verbist passed and spread some of the key messages he espoused. These included the phrases "For the one who loves, nothing is difficult" and "We must remain united One Heart One Soul." Father Phukata vowed to continue the mission's "family relationship" with China and invited Chinese Christians to study the CICM's spiritual messages. Media reports claim that 250 of the 679 CICM missionaries who worked in the country from 1865 died and are buried there.
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Pope Francis is pictured with Father Francisco Carin and Chinese pilgrims at St. Peter's Square in May 2017. (Photo supplied)
The delegation, which included FC Superior General Brother R. Stockman, CMF Superior General Mathew Vattamattan and CICM Vicar General Ador Castillo, was greeted in China by the three leading figures of the Chinese Bishops Conference: Bishop Ma Yinglin, Bishop Shenbin and Bishop Guo Jincai. The Verbiest Foundation also sponsors the Verbiest Institute, headquartered in Belgium with an office in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, which China has since 1949 considered a renegade province. The institute is hosted by the Catholic University of Leuven just east of Brussels and has a mandate of fostering greater dialogue between Europe and China. Its director, Claretian Father Francisco Carin, led a group of 33 Chinese pilgrims including 29 parish priests to Rome
in May 2017, during which time they were granted an audience with Pope Francis. The pontiff voiced his support for their approach to pastoral formation and expressed his desire to visit the Chinese mainland one day.