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State-run TV broadcasts program on German Jesuit missioner


April 06 2009

The recent broadcasting over state-run television of a documentary on a 17th-century German missioner has pleasantly surprised mainland Chinese Catholics.

The program was first telecast on March 22 evening on China Central Television (CCTV). It featured Jesuit Father Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666), who made important contributions to research in science and astronomy in China, and also evangelized on the mainland.

The 36-minute documentary also highlighted how he acted as a bridge in fostering greater understanding between Eastern and Western cultures.

The program, produced by the Jesuit-run Kuangchi Program Service in Taiwan and Jiangsu Broadcasting Corporation in Nanjing, mainland China, was replayed in the morning and afternoon of March 23.

News of the screening spread rapidly through Catholic websites, chat rooms and group e-mails and generated excitement among Chinese Catholics, according to sources. Some lay Catholics also watched it online from the CCTV website.

Mary Sun, a Catholic in the northern Hebei province, said she did not know much about Father Schall, known as Tang Ruowang in Chinese, until she watched the program. "I feel proud that our Church had such a great missioner," she said.

Sun added that the rare screening of a documentary on a religious figure in the communist country, where Christians are a minority, was a positive development. She felt that government could be doing this to ease tensions with the Vatican or affirm the positive contributions of Western missioners.

The program was part of the "Exploring" documentary series screened on CCTV Channel 10, which broadcasts mostly science and other educational programs.

Another layperson from Hebei, John Baptist Ma, said the CCTV program can be seen as indicative of the Chinese authorities´ willingness to "dialogue with the Church." He added that he would record the program onto DVD and show it to his non-Catholic friends as a means of introducing them to the Catholic faith.

However, a college student from Beijing surnamed Zheng, said she was not at all surprised at the broadcast. "The Church teaches people good deeds," said Zheng, who is not a Catholic. "The government should support it."

Father Schall was born into a noble family in Cologne, Germany. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1611, and was later sent to China via Lisbon, Goa and Macau. He was admitted to the imperial court in Beijing in 1623, and helped Xu Guangqi, a Catholic and a senior official of the Ming Dynasty, reform the Chinese calendar. His knowledge of astronomy and mathematics is said to have won him great respect from the Chinese people.

He also did mission work in Beijing and Shaanxi province, and published several religious books. He died in Beijing at the age of 75, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

This was not the first time a Catholic missioner has been featured on China television, however. In 2003, a listed TV company in mainland China produced a TV drama on Italian Jesuit Brother Joseph Castiglione (1688-1766), known as Lang Shining in Chinese, who worked more than 50 years for the Qing Dynasty emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng.