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from issue no. 01 - 2007

Chinese students at the Universities of the Pope

And meanwhile in Rome peace is already made

by Gianni Valente

The split which the Chinese Catholic Church is still suffering in many local situations is still serious enough to affect sacramental communion between the communities recognized by the government and the so-called “clandestine” ones. But in the heart of Rome, a few yards away from the Vatican, priests from the two Chinese ecclesial sectors celebrate the Eucharist together each morning at half past six, and each evening they meet again for Eucharistic adoration and for the saying of the Rosary and Vespers. The site of this daily rapprochement – warmly backed by their “superiors” – is the chapel of the Pontifical Urbanian College, where the Congregation of Propaganda Fide hosts priests and seminarians from the non-European continents come to study at the Pontifical Universities of the Eternal City.
For twenty-five years now Chinese students – seminarians, nuns, priests – have in various ways won permission to leave China and improve their ecclesiastical qualifications at academic institutions in the West. And with time Rome has become the focal point for this unique flow. According to statistics provided by the scholar-missionary Jean Charbonnier, between 1994 and 2006 as many as 149 of the 387 Chinese students of ecclesiastical subjects in Europe have followed their courses in Italy. Of these, already more than 30 have returned for good to carry out academic or pastoral activity in China. In 2006 the “surge” of 57 new requests by Chinese students interested in coming to Italy to study Theology, Pastoral and Canon Law could be only partly satisfied.
In 2003 Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe – at that time Prefect of Propaganda Fide – decided to set up the John Paul II Asian Cultural Center, conceived as a single support and orientation body for Chinese students during their time studying in Rome. In those years, Propaganda Fide had fixed some general rules for clerics and nuns from the former Celestial Empire: from six months to a year for the study of Italian, with an intensive summer course of three months organized in the diocese of Terni. And, to follow, three years of courses to gain a licentiate in Theology.
This year Cardinal Ivan Dias, new prefect of the Vatican department for the missions, has introduced new directives for the group of Chinese (around a hundred, counting nuns, priests and seminarians) who attend the Pontifical Universities in Rome. Priests and seminarians will be “scattered” throughout the various colleges of Propaganda Fide, not least to encourage the use of Italian as lingua franca in contact with students from other parts of the world; and in future there will be a strict selection procedure to ensure proper standards of education in the Chinese “candidates” who request to come to study in the universities of the Pope. The Asian Cultural Center will be shut down in fact. For their academic needs the Chinese students – clerics, religious and lay – present in Rome will also be able to benefit from the services of the Freinademetz Center, opened by the Divine Word Congregation at the Roman College of the Divine Word last 29 January.

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