Pope Francis on the Trail of Matteo Ricci

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Last week, a dear friend came to New York to join the United Nations General Assembly as a member of an important European delegation. When we met, he told me that he felt estranged – almost like he was having a hallucination – when he walked the streets of Midtown Manhattan and saw Francis’ face glaring from countless TV screens and digital monitors. Even for a world traveller like him, it was very surprising to see the pope’s image painted across the most famous skyline in the world. But with the help of Francis, America was able to break her own taboo, and once again proved to be a country of constant contradictions.

Not only did the pope’s image dazzle New Yorkers, but it also overshadowed the presence of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, all in New York while the pope was still in the country. The three tried to avoid each other in order hide their own insignificance in the presence of the man in white. A least, this is what I like to think. The three most powerful men on this planet have not met, and in the already overcrowded little space of Manhattan, this was not an easy operation.

The only event besides pope’s visit that got the least bit of media stir was the squabble about Syria between President Obama and President Putin in the United Nations. But even this very important issue of dreadful, protracted war seemed to fade away in the presence of the pope. On the other hand, Chinese President Xi Jinping, already pleased with his pompous White House reception, tried hard to leave New York unnoticed. For him, the visit to America was little more than a photo opportunity.

And according to some skeptical observers, Francis’ visit was similarly unsubstantial, hardly good enough to scare Donald Trump, while more somber Vatican experts pondered the possibility of more lasting clout from the pope’s spectacular performance in America. Time will tell, John Allen – one of the most respected Vatican reporters – argues in his analysis of the visit.

But as soon the pope got on the plane that took him, his collaborators and the corps of Vatican correspondents to Rome, Francis set his sights on a new horizon. This pope really has no fear of flying. He loves it. High above the clouds, Francis’ mind works better and faster.

“I’d really love to go to China. I love the Chinese people. I hope there is a possibility to have good relations with China. We have contacts, we talk. It’s necessary to keep going,” the pope said on the plane, according to ANSA,the official Italian press agency.

This was not the first time Francis mentioned China. The two countries have had no diplomatic relationship since 1951, when Beijing banished the Holy See’s diplomatic mission and accused him of espionage. But rarely, in more than half a century of cold war, has there been a complete blackout of communications between the world’s most populous country and the Church, which runs the the most widespread religion on the planet. This time, the response from Beijing was immediate: the day after the pope’s flattery, China’s foreign ministry returned with an article in the Communist Party-run tabloid, the Global Times, promising that China is “sincere about improving relations with the Vatican.” The article also appeared on the website of the People’s Daily, the leading mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The most attractive and interesting part of the relationship between China and the Holy See is their method of diplomacy. One could call their relationship an exercise of old, even obsolete diplomatic school, but the fact is that the two sides are still using a very efficient coded language that enables boths sides to communicate, even during the period of crisis.

As we know, Francis is the first Jesuit to become a pope. Continuity, tradition and saints count for a lot in the history of the Church. Same goes for the Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1534, that professed vows of poverty, chastity, and, in 1540, a special vow of obedience to the Pope. “Founded for whoever desired to serve as a soldier of God, the Society of Jesus, known also as God’s Soldiers, strived for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine,” proclaims the Society’s mission statement.

One of these soldiers of God was Matteo Ricci, only 30 years old in 1582, when he landed in Macao, the Portuguese trading port, where he started learning Chinese language and customs. It took him 16 years to reach Beijing and be admitted to the emperor’s court, where, fluent in both spoken and scholarly Chinese, he was appointed as an imperial adviser. But this brilliant missionary who used the native language and science to convert the Chinese to Christianity, died in China without ever meeting the reclusive emperor Wanli.

Pope Francis shares Matteo Ricci’s ambition he wants to travel to China, but not without meeting the emperor. Three days after Francis was elected pope in 2013, Xi Jinping became president of China. The two exchanged courtesy letters, then a few months later, Francis made another move. He named Pietro Parolin, a negotiator with China and an expert on the country, for his Secretary of State, a position equivalent to the prime minister. Previously, when Parolin served as Undersecretary of State at the beginning of Pope Benedict’s pontificate he reestablished direct contact with China.

“It was in this context that Benedict XVI sent Chinese Catholics the June 2007 Letter.

“Those were the years in which Parolin was heading the Vatican delegation in the confidential negotiations with Chinese officials to solve the problems Christians still face in China. He flew to Beijing twice along with other members of the Vatican delegation. Those years seemed to mark the start of a real turning point in the troubled Sino-Vatican relations. Then, in summer 2009, Parolin was nominated Nuncio to Caracas,” Gianni Valente says of Pietro Parolin’s talent in the Vatican Insider.

Now Parolin is back and Francis has made him a cardinal and the Secretary of State. At the end of last year he talked about China in a longer interview:

The journey was and still is long, marked by alternate phases and has not yet come to an end. It will end when God wishes it to. I believe we need to adopt a theological approach with regard to our relations with China. We are currently in a positive phase. Both sides have shown a willingness to continue talking and to search for solutions to the problems relating to the presence of the Catholic Church in this vast country. Personally, I would go as far as to say that prospects look promising and we hope these gems will blossom and bear good fruit, for the good of the Chinese Church and the whole world.

Indeed, things look pretty well, if we consider that last August,the episcopal ordination of Chinese bishop, Father Joseph Zhang Yinlin of Anyang, was conducted in accordance with an agreement between the Holy See and China, as reported by the ever-reliable Vatican Insider.

The ordination of bishops, when agreed upon and coordinated, follows China’s selection procedure, but is approved by Holy See. In the past, there were ups and downs in this procedure, which serves as litmus test for the relationship between the two sides.

In 2000, I witnessed a ceremony in Beijing’s Nantang cathedral, where five Chinese priests were forcibly ordained as bishops by order of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Patriotic Catholic Church of China. It was Beijing’s revenge for the Vatican’s announcement of the beatification of 120 Chinese and foreign Catholic martyrs who died during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The dramatic event was televised by Chinese national TV so that then-pope John Paul II could see it, just a few hours before he was to stage a massive ordination of bishops on the floor of St. Peter’s in Rome.  Now Beijing and the Vatican seem to be in swing again. The 5,000 years of Chinese history on one side and Vatican biblical slow motion on the other does not make for rapid moves and quick jumps ahead, but as Parolin says, things are progressing. Until they stop again.

So the other day, when my visiting friend asked me for an opinion about what China wants with its expansion, I answered that they want power, that they are building a new empire. “For what purpose? What’s the project? What will they do with it?” he asked me, thinking in a very European way, where every deed has a reason. One could answer with Tao, saying that it is the Way, the Path, not the Goal, which defines the purpose. But that would be misleading. Contemporary China has nothing to do with Taoism. Far from it.

Instead I could bring the Vatican to the table. But my mind was so full of Francis’ American visit that it did not click.

Could the Catholic Church bring to China part of the missing spirituality that the country is desperately seeking? After the death of Maoist ideology, China was unable to replace it with anything. For a brief period of time, Beijing tried to transplant the Neo-Confucianism practiced in Singapore, but it did not grow. On the other hand, Catholicism seems to have more of a chance, judging by the popularity of the Bible, which has far surpassed the bible of Maoism in popularity.

The acceptance of a more active presence of the Catholic Church in China could also help Beijing to smooth out its rude capitalistic manners. The Vatican, with Caritas and other social services gravitating around the Holy See, is famous for its networks and its efficiency.

One day, Beijing will have to realize that not everything is obtainable with the iron fist of repression. The latter does not mean that, in the Vatican-China challenge, I am inclined towards the Catholic Church, which proposes itself as the one and only guide towards personal salvation. While the Jesuit command of the Holy See is more socially acceptable, and while the Catholic Church under Francis’ guidance is less aggressive in imposing its role (and therefore closer to the interests of Beijing),

I think that the Vatican is still on an impossible mission.  To my knowledge, China and the Vatican have not moved a millimeter in last 20 years, since I first started to follow this love-hate relationship. While Beijing wants to reestablish a diplomatic relationship without giving away the slightest bit of supremacy, the CCP exercises complete authority in controlling any form of organization.  No matter whether it’s a group of fishermen, soccer players, business tycoons or foreign correspondents, while in China, you can only form your club, association, or even sports team with the permission or political sponsorship of the CCP. So the Vatican is competing in China with the country’s real church. While promising that it will never get politically involved in China, requesting complete autonomy in the spiritual guidance of the Catholic flock means asking for something that the China we know today could never give.  

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