One of the most fascinating connections to be made from Pope Francis’ recent trip to Korea was the Jesuit connection to China. As the papal flight was in Chinese airspace a reporter asked the pope about China. Full of missionary zeal, Pope Francis replied, "Then I left them [the pilots in the cockpit] and I returned to my place and I prayed a lot for that beautiful and noble Chinese people, a wise people. I think of the great wise men of China, I think of the history of science and wisdom. And we Jesuits have a history there with Father Ricci. All these things came into my mind. If I want to go to China? For sure! Tomorrow!"
The Christian faith was first brought to China in the seventh century by Nestorian Christians from Syria. The Nestorians took the gospel Eastward after dividing with the Latin Church. A small Christian witness remained in the Far East, and there was a courageous missionary effort by Franciscans in the thirteenth century, but Catholicism was first planted in China in modern times by the amazing Jesuit missionaries of the sixteenth century.
St. Francis Xavier was the first to try to reach the Chinese in 1552, and his attempt was followed by Fr. Matto Ricci—the Pope’s Italian countryman and fellow Jesuit. Fr. Ricci introduced Western science, mathematics, astronomy, and visual arts to the Chinese imperial court. He engaged in cultural, philosophical, and religious dialogue and was accepted at the imperial court. Jesuits became trusted members of the Emperor’s inside circle and many Confucian priests converted to Catholicism and joined the Jesuits.
Throughout the seventeenth century the Jesuits continued to make impressive advances. Their missionary method was to adopt and adapt all that was best in Chinese culture and religion and re-formulate it and integrate it into Catholicism. By the eighteenth century, however, the Dominican and Franciscan missionaries objected to the Jesuit attempts at inculturation. The friars said that offerings to the ancestors and the Emperor were a form of idolatry and devil worship. The Jesuits argued that they were harmless acts of political homage and folk custom. Eventually the Franciscans convinced Pope Clement XI that they were right. The Chinese customs were banned and the Catholic mission in China began to dwindle.
Through the intervening centuries Catholicism in the Far East continued to grow slowly. In various countries Catholics endured great persecution. In some places the Church flourished while in other countries it took root only to be quashed by nationalism movements and revolution. Today it is the predominant religion in the Philippines, is very strong in Vietnam, South Korea, and is growing rapidly in China. This article from London’s Daily Telegraph reports that by 2030 China will boast the world’s largest Christian population.
However, the Chinese Catholic Church remains in a tense standoff with the government. Since the Cultural Revolution in 1949 the government controlled the Catholic faith and insisted that it come under the umbrella of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association—a kind of state Catholic Church. This religious group does not recognize the authority of the pope and state officials appoint bishops. The Patriotic Church “Catholics” are in the minority and comprise between 5 and 6 million believers. The Catholic Church, still in communion with Rome has twice the number and remains stubbornly loyal to Rome despite persecution by the Chinese authorities.
Tentative steps to overcome the difficulties for Chinese Catholics have been attempted with little success. However, as China continues to open up to religious freedom, and Christianity continues to spread like wildfire, will Pope Francis be the one to resolve the tensions between the Vatican and the Chinese government?
Drawing on the rich heritage of Jesuit missions to the Far East, Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to Korea reminds us of the history, continuity and far reaching connections of the Catholic faith. Nothing is wasted in God’s providence. The seeds of faith planted in the Far East by an Italian Jesuit in the sixteenth century and watered by the blood of martyrs may now be coming to fruition through the ministry of an Italian Jesuit pope in the twenty first century.
Fr Dwight Longeneckeris the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at www.dwightlongenecker.com.