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from issue no. 10 - 2003

As Cardinal Godfried Danneels sees it

«But the Church is not a “Celestial Empire”»

“If it presents itself as a centralized spiritual organization which dispatches its agents throughout the world, the image can create resistance in China perhaps more than anywhere else”. An interview with the Belgian Primate, who is planning a trip to the Peoples’ Republic of China

by Gianni Valente

Cardinal Godfried Danneels

Cardinal Godfried Danneels

For Cardinal Godfried Danneels the past and present reality of the Chinese Catholic community is not an exotic, unknown land where to venture in the company of some worn-out cliché. The Belgian primate has always kept an eye on the anomalous case of the Chinese Church. Because the fruits of the announcement of the Christian message in the former Celestial Empire caught his attention when he was a child. And also perhaps because now, for him the Bishop of the “capital” of the European Community, to follow even from afar the stories of the small and suffering Church of China is an aid to recognizing what is essential and that which is secondary in Christian life. In the vortex of words, judgements and projects about the condition of the Church in the world at the beginning of the third millennium, such as those expressed in the prolonged debate on the Christian roots of Europe.
In his speech at the Colloquium held in Louvain at the beginning of September, Cardinal Danneels, taking his starting point from the condition of the Chinese Church, reproposed the image of the Church as a communion of communities set out by the Vatican II Ecumenical Council, and insisted on the fact that the subject of Christian life is the simple baptized individual and not the militant or episcopal delegate. During his sermon at the closing mass he also referred to the experience of martyrdom which had marked many seasons of the apostolic mission in China. «The Christian martyr is not a hero», His Eminence repeats at the starts of the interview with 30Days. «The pagan hero, in dying, proclaims his act of rebellion. In the foreground is his courage, his human performance. The Christian does not protest against anyone. Many Chinese martyrs were the poor, with their real fears and real weaknesses, who would never have thought they might have to sacrifice their lives”.

Your Eminence, where does your interest in the Church in China come from?
GODFRIED DANNEELS:When I was a boy, I remember that in almost every parish there were the Fathers of the missionary Congregation of Scheut. Many of them went as missionaries to China. It impressed me that when they came back home on holiday, all with their long beards, they seemed to have become Chinese. I have never seen missionaries identify themselves so deeply with a world so different from theirs. It didn’t for example happen to the many who then went to Africa, and remained Belgian. When the persecution began in China, many of these missionaries were expelled. They returned to the parishes of their own countries. And for the rest of their lives they always spoke of their regret and the desire to return to China. When I was made a bishop, I came to know Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, who is a living monument to the passion for the Chinese Church and for China. What strikes me is his ability to understand from the inside the Chinese mentality, so different from ours. Some years ago I abandoned a project for a trip to China because at that moment he couldn’t accompany me. Now a new plan for a journey is taking shape and may come about next year …
In China, as elsewhere, Christian life can flourish from the common grace of baptism. Justification through baptism, that’s the core of the solution. The mission to proclaim the Gospel was given by Christ Himself to every Christian in virtue of his baptism, in the ordinary conditions of his daily life. It is not a “mandate” which can be granted or not granted by the Pope or the bishop to the person baptized, as if they were their emissaries. It is the simple doctrine reaffirmed by Vatican Council II, but it is not taken into account very much …
In Belgium you have always followed with attention the delicate and difficult events in the Chinese Church.
DANNEELS: Already in 1974, when,all contact was broken off with the Cultural Revolution, the Catholic group “Pro mundi vita” and the Lutheran World Federation organized here in Louvain, in fact, one of the first conferences on the Chinese Church. In 1985 the first Chinese Catholic delegation which was permitted to leave China came here to Belgium, at the invitation of the Verbiest Foundation, for a visit to the University of Louvain. Since then, speaking with some “official” bishops, those recognized by the Chinese government, one understood that many mistaken ideas and prejudices should be clarified and removed. In 1995 Liu Shu-xiang, the then director of the Office for Religious Affairs, also came to Belgium.
The Chinese Church is still suffering painful divisions. In the face of this situation, you used an interesting historical comparison.
DANNEELS: The division involving the Church in China recalls what happened in Europe at the time of the French Revolution, with the change in the power structure then. Also in that context, “official”communities guided by priests who had taken oaths of loyalty to the new regime and “non-official” communities led by those who refused such an oath, opposed each other in the Church. When in the end the Holy See made the Concordat with Napoleon, several generations had to pass before the trauma of this division was overcome and the return to unity came about. So we can also understand the reservations of many of the so called “non-official” communities who live outside the organizations of government control. They have suffered and for them it is difficult to act as if nothing had happened. But reconciliation must be our main committment when unity is in danger. And this happens constantly, and not just in China.
The shadow of a possible break of unity with the Bishop of Rome has hung over the Chinese Catholic community for long years. Still today there are those who speak of “two Chinese churches”, one faithful to the Pope and the other to the government …
A catechism lesson at the church of Nantang in Peking

A catechism lesson at the church of Nantang in Peking

DANNEELS:Those who follow happenings in the Chinese Church over the past years from afar as I do, felt great relief when the fears of a possible schism by one part of the Chinese Church were seen to be unfounded, and that the majority of the bishops recognized by the government and originally nominated without the authorization of Rome asked for and then received the consent of the Apostolic See.
Monsignor Han, “unofficial” Bishop of Lanzhou, through a letter brought to the attention of the West at the Louvain Colloquium, for the first time exhorted the bishops and priests of both “areas” to manifest their real unity in eucharistic concelebration.
DANNEELS: I don’t know this Bishop of Gansu. One can see he is young, not least from the courage with which he believes in the possibility of reconciliation. When you are old, the motto becomes “Nothing new under the sun” … In the letter his appeal to pray for unity and to beg it in eucharistic celebration especially pleases me. Because unity in the faith is not the work of men, but of the Holy Spirit. At Emmaus the disciples became aware that the Lord was with them only at the moment of celebrating the Eucharist. It doesn’t have to do with multiplying structures and organizations to “deal with” reconciliation. It is only necessary to recognize together the fruits that come from being baptized. Baptism is the underpinning of the Church.
In his letter Bishop Han invites the removal of certain factors of a juridical-canonical nature which are an obstacle to the way of reconciliation.
DANNEELS: He’s right. It is necessary to go beyond the regulations issued some years ago to discourage joint eucharistic celebrations between members of the community recognized by the government and the non-registered or underground community. It does not have to do with sanctioning in block the organizations and “patriotic”structures whereby the government controls the Church. And doubts can remain about the sincerity of single individuals in the Church. But these doubts cannot justify the ban on common eucharistic celebrations between Chinese Catholics. If the celebrating priest professes his fidelity to the Catholic faith and unity with the Holy Father and the universal Church, no one can allow himself to doubt the validity and efficacy of the sacrament administered by him.
Is there evidence elsewhere in the Church of this tendency to resolve problems in a juridical way?
DANNEELS: It reflects the modern tendency to place complete confidence in rules. Even regarding the great human values such as the right to life. According to me, when something fundamental, which was formerly shared goes missing, the attempt to reintroduce it and impose it by law will never work. Loopholes and quibbles are always found to get around the new prescriptions. Without realising it we are changing into a world of judges and lawyers.
The tormented historic event of Catholicism in China also has delicate implications for the nature and form of the Church. What image of the Church would contribute to toning down the misunderstandings and unresolved questions in the Christian message to the Chinese world?
DANNEELS: The criterion is to favor what helps the testimony of Jesus Christ. If the Church presents itself as a centralized spiritual organization which dispatches its agents throughout the world, a type of headquarters which pulls the strings everywhere, this image can cause objections and resistance in China more than elsewhere.
A painting portraying the Last Supper of Jesus in the church of Xi Zhi men, known as Xitang in Peking.

A painting portraying the Last Supper of Jesus in the church of Xi Zhi men, known as Xitang in Peking.

So what is it better to aim at?
DANNEELS: In China, as elsewhere, Christian life can flourish from the common grace of baptism. Justification through baptism, that’s the core of the solution. The mission to proclaim the Gospel was given by Christ himself to every Christian in virtue of his baptism, in the ordinary conditions of his daily life. It is not a “mandate” which can be granted or not granted by the Pope or the bishop to the person baptized, as if they were their emissaries. It is the simple doctrine reaffirmed by Vatican Council II, but it is not taken into account very much …
In China even recent government documents continue to wish to impose on the local Church independence from every juridical tie with the Holy See and the universal Church. But also in Catholic circles many sustain the rights of the local Churches and criticize centralism. Could this debate offer a starting point for the Chinese situation?
DANNEELS: The Church is a body. Certainly this body has a head. We have need of the successor of Peter as a center of unity. We can’t do without it. But this center is not like a sort of head office from where all the commands go to the outlying branches. It’s more a like magnetic field, where unity is the fruit of a force of attraction, rather than impositions and juridical bonds. In these decades, for example, the affection towards the successor of Peter has been felt in a moving way by the Chinese Catholics as an inextinguishable fact of their own faith, even when the juridical relationship was in fact broken off.
The Chinese government rejects the Pope’s nomination of bishops as “interference in national questions”. Wouldn’t decentralization of the procedures for episcopal nominations, which many people in the Church also want, suggest a flexible way of solving the Chinese difficulties?
DANNEELS: Since the Middle Ages the Dominicans have held on to a certain democratic criterion in the election of their own superior. Perhaps this would also be possible for bishops. Certainly, one would have to see how to do it. It would be necessary to find procedures to guarantee that the Church not become the victim of pressure. Making sure so far as possible that the nomination of the bishop isn’t the result of pressure from interested parties, of ideological or economic lobbies. But the effective contribution of the local Church in the choice of its own bishop should in some way be brought back. Not least because that’s how it was done in the beginning.
In your speech you stressed that in dealings with civil institutions the most fitting approach is that set out in Gaudium et spes.
DANNEELS: The vocation of every local Church is to radiate joy and hope – gaudium et spes – in the society in which it lives. And number 31 of Gaudium et spes three times cites the service of charity in the world as the specific responsibility of the laity. The Church does not intend to be a structure above real life. It has nothing to do with entering into competition or indeed into emnity with the earthly city, but to contribute to its construction, animated by faith in Jesus. In the Christian concept of society there is undeniably a force for humanization not to be found elsewhere, and which all can appreciate as a good thing. But this contribution can be offered only by living in solidarity and sympathy with the city of men. You cannot pretend to “humanize” society by denying or having recriminations against the men who live in it, as they are.
Does the approach suggested in Gaudium et spes also have validity for the complicated Chinese situation?
DANNEELS: I believe that with time the way of dialogue and communication with the civil authorities will favor a more tranquil life for the Church in China, where in the minds of many mistaken ideas and prejudices remain, such as that of considering the Church a sort of “foreign power”. It is essential that through dialogue the Chinese bishops are recognized not only as bishops in their own dioceses, but also as members of the entire Episcopal College presided over by the Pope. As happened already in 1946, when the constitution of a local Chinese hierarchy recognized by the then civil authorities began a time of great hope for the Church in China.
In the West, to combat secularization and in response to the emergence of new religious subjects, various Catholic circles seem concerned to make the Church count more on the political and cultural level. They demand space and representation in the cultural leadership of civil society. Some see the fight back in terms of cultural hegemony…
Danneels: That temptation is not felt, it seems to me, by the Chinese Church for the moment … But certainly the temptation is always there in the Church. The temptation to conceive of itself a little like a … Celestial Empire. Particularly we in the West, where we see that the faith is no longer handed on through heredity and is no longer automatically guaranteed a place in society, we must keep keep in mind the many, even recent, examples that show it to be a barren propect.
As for that, there has been debate for months about the need to affirm the Christian roots of Europe in the forthcoming Constitution of the European Community. How do you see this debate?
DANNEELS: Recognizing the importance of Christianity for the birth and development of Europe is a question of historical truth. It’s a matter of a simple discernment, not a right in law to justify the taking of positions. But I wouldn’t turn it into religious war, which have the effect of causing a stronger reaction in those who oppose for ideological reasons. Rather than asking for a mention in the preface we need to look at the contents. In the constitutional text the parts about the relationship between civil institutions and Churches seem to me well drawn up. And, then, personally, I’m more interested in whether the Christian faith is alive in reality, rather than in claiming a mention of it in some article of a code.

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