Chinese Catholics look to beloved cardinal to be beatified

Cardinal Celso Costantini called on church members to absorb Chinese culture into Catholicism
Chinese Catholics look to beloved cardinal to be beatified

Cardinal Celso Costantini was nominated by Pope Pius XI as the first apostolic delegate to China. (Photo supplied)

In 1922, Cardinal Celso Costantini (1876-1958) — now being considered for possible sainthood — was nominated by Pope Pius XI as the first apostolic delegate to China and held the post until 1933.

China was plagued by civil wars as well as a Japanese invasion and the country was split by Western powers into spheres of interest.

A French religious protectorate constituted an obstacle for China in diplomacy with the Vatican, especially during a Sino-Vatican tentative rapprochement between 1885 and 1918.

Strictly speaking, it could not be called the China Church as missions on Chinese soil were working independently from each other.

During 12 years in China, Cardinal Costantini drew a clear line between politics and church affairs for all missionaries and Chinese clergy.

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And Cardinal Costantini followed various papal advice and guidelines in order to develop Chinese Catholicism.

While doing so, Cardinal Costantini skillfully managed diplomatic sensitivity and obstruction from France so he could build loyalty to the pope.

The localization, or inculturation, of the church began with the ordination of the first six Chinese bishops he recommended to the pope in 1924.

Cardinal Costantini also convened the first Chinese Council (Primum Concilium Sinense) in Shanghai in 1924 and created new apostolic vicariates, as well as new Chinese religious congregations, and encouraged Chinese-style Catholic fine arts.

These efforts converged towards the goal of "Sinicization" of Chinese Catholicism, impacts that are still being felt.

Cardinal Costantini attempted to distinguish interests of the Western powers as well as set norms for all missionaries, local priests and the faithful to follow.

From 1935 to 1953, he played an important role in liturgical reforms to help solve a controversy over how much acceptance there should be for Chinese Catholics to also practice Confucian rites honoring ancestors.

His achievements made him a beloved figure among Chinese Catholics.

China and the Vatican are now conducting historic negotiations to resolve differences.

This term Sinicization has become a key part of the vocabulary defining relations between the Chinese communist regime and religious groups.

But it also reminds people of Cardinal Costantini's contribution to China.

From the point of theology, ecclesiology and history of the church, the term Sinicization stressed by the Chinese government is based on political ideology.

It imposes political and legal measures that have nothing to do with Catholic doctrines or church management.

Cardinal Costantini excluded political factors and called on church members to absorb Chinese culture into Catholicism in its external expression.

In the current context, Sinicization has a potential to widen the gap between the China church and the Vatican.

Current problems centered on the government-sanctioned open church community and the underground community are complicated.

The bid for Cardinal Constantini's beatification will serve as a good example for all members of the Chinese Church, even for the Universal Church.

And although it is likely to be drawn-out, progress would demonstrate love of the Catholic Church for China in the spirit of the late cardinal.

Considerable progress would be achieved if the Vatican could settle its disagreement with China over appointment of bishops.

Otherwise, along with the Chinese government's increased regulation of religious affairs, it will stir greater activity by the underground church.

Sinicization is the latest manifestation of the Catholic ‘Patriotic Movement' promoted by the government since 1949 as a result of distrust of Catholicism.

However, if we look at the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), countless Catholics participated in anti-Japanese operations.

Father Vincent Lebbe (1877-1940), who obtained Chinese nationality, even led Chinese seminarians and sisters to help treat the wounded, while lay leader Ma Xiangbo was called "patriot elder."

From this we can see that the patriotism of the Catholics was not shaped by official policy, but by faith in God and love of their country, including its history, culture and ethnicity.

However, at times Catholics have been deprived of their own nation's affections.


Alexandre Tsung-ming Chen is director of research at Ferdinand Verbiest Institute, K.U.Leuven, in Belgium.

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