The Gospel’s Slow Boat To China

What if the Incarnation had occurred in China? What if the Word had come to that vast land regarded itself as "the Middle Kingdom," the center of the world? He would have come to live among the Chinese : to teach, to heal to suffer and die and rise, but as a Chinese person. He would most likely have cited the inspired wisdom of sages such as Confucius, who said, "Do not unto others what you would not want done to you." And he would have commissioned his Chinese followers to spread the good news of God's salvation to the whole world.

During a recent three-week visit to China, I wondered if these Chinese missionaries, had they come to Europe and later to America, would have required that the Lord be pictured as a Chinese man dressed in Chinese clothing? Would they have insisted that churches be built in the traditional Chinese style with sloping tile roofs turned up at the corners? Would they have told converts to the faith to become at least somewhat familiar with the Chinese language in order to participate properly in the Lord's Supper? Would they have required that the Eucharist everywhere be steamed bread and rice wine?

If they had, I fear there would have been few converts. It would be all too easy to dismiss this Chinese-obsessed Christianity as a strange and foreign intrusion. To link the great message of the gospel so closely to one culture : even if it were one in which the Lord lived : is to set up obstacles for people of other cultures.

Our tour group visited more than a dozen churches in nine cities in China. With few exceptions, they were of Western design : neo-Gothic structures with lofty spires, columns and arches that could have been miraculously transported from Europe (or America!) to Beijing or Shanghai. The paintings and statues of Jesus and the saints invariably showed European features with long noses and white faces.

We were told that older Chinese Catholics prefer Western church styles and art forms, regarding Chinese styles as "pagan." This response troubled me because it implied that they believe Western culture to be somewhat superior and holier, while their own Asian culture to be inferior and unworthy.

To be sure, the Catholic church is alive in China (about 10 million Catholics in a population of 1.2 billion people), even after suffering long periods of oppression and intense persecution. Now churches are again open, as are seminaries and convents; but the heavy hand of China's government remains, and some Catholics prefer to practice their faith in secret rather than accept any compromise with a Communist government.

But even if China were to enjoy full religious liberty, I wonder if the church could flourish if its visible symbols proclaim it a transported Western growth, especially as the Chinese are increasingly conscious of their self-image in a globalized world.

However, there are signs of hope. In an alcove at the rear of the cathedral in Shanghai, we found an ancient painting of two men engaged in conversation. Both wore the silk robes of Mandarin intellectuals. They were Hsu Kuang-Chi, an early Catholic convert, and Father Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit who 400 years ago attempted to present the Catholic faith not as a European import but as a universal gift to all humanity. Ricci dressed as a Chinese; he studied and appreciated Chinese religion and culture. He talked and walked with Chinese leaders and thinkers. Ultimately he created a unique compatibility between the gospel message and the Chinese Confucian ethical system. Nothing quite like it had existed before.

When Ricci died in 1610 his achievements were so respected by the Chinese emperor that the door was open to Catholicism in China. For some 90 years after, the Confucian Christianity developed by Ricci's Jesuit successors and growing numbers of converts gained a major foothold in the country.

Then in the 18th century, the project was repudiated by the Vatican when later missionaries complained that this form of faith was too accepting of ancient Chinese customs and beliefs. After that, missionaries to China opted almost exclusively for Western churches, images and worship styles. The Ricci legacy was relegated to alcoves and closets.

The Church today has [supposedly] become more sensitive to the need to "inculturate" the faith throughout the world in many cultures. And Ricci might be coming out of the alcove. In his remarks during the canonization of Chinese martyrs in 2001, Pope John Paul II said: "The authentic way of the church is intertwined with profound and respectful intercultural dialogue, as Matteo Ricci taught us with wisdom and skill."

Since then, there has even been talk of canonization for Ricci himself; but I think Ricci would be far more interested in pushing ahead on inculturation and dialogue. He never used those exact words, but he clearly understood their meaning. He was way ahead of his time.


Rev. Francis F. Baiocchi

As it was the misguided political infighting within the Vatican and within missionary orders competing against the Jesuits in China that put an end to Matteo Ricci's great "China experiment" in the 18th century, so it continues to be that same intransigence that still will not allow the Catholic faith to be reborn and refashioned in any other culture in today's world. Despite this pope's belated praise for Ricci's approach to plant the Christian faith within the Chinese culture, this same pope insists upon the Western-style approaches of a colonial-type evangelization of Asian countries. This pope attempted to dictate European-style evangelization techniques two years ago to the Synod of Asian bishops. To their credit, these Asian bishops withstood much of the assault by the pope and the Vatican Curia to "westernize" their approach to the Asian people. This pope and Curia are little better than their 18th century counterparts. They still think that the only good liturgy, the only true theology and the very best evangelization methods are those of the Western church. So much for true "catholicity!"

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