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from issue no. 12 - 2010

The pressing need to resume dialogue

Evidence in Chinese ink

“To truly get into China we must go through the door of the heart, of friendship, as Matteo Ricci well understood”

by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray with the Bishop of Shanghai Aloysius Jin Luxian

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray with the Bishop of Shanghai Aloysius Jin Luxian

I discovered China during four journeys: the first time in 1980, then in 1993, 2000 and 2003... but it would take forty to claim to know it.
Providentially, a hundred meters from my childhood home in the Basque country (in Espelette), Father Armand David was born in 1826. He was a Lazarian, a missionary and also a naturalist, as there were many at that time. In his scientific explorations, he had the good fortune to come across the Giant Panda, the black and white bear that has become an emblem of China and an ecological symbol.
We are aware of the symbolic meaning and sacredness of the door in all Oriental landscapes. To truly get into China, we have to go through the door of the heart, of friendship, as Matteo Ricci well understood. Ricci was a learned sixteenth-century Jesuit who wrote a delightful “Treatise on Friendship” before being introduced into the imperial court. During my first visit to Beijing, I was handed a plaque: the word “friendship” was written on a plum blossom, the flower most resistant to storms. And every time I have returned to China, I have done so in the company of Matteo Ricci.
What to print out here, in the brevity of a snapshot? I see a Church rooted in a society caught between rampant pragmatic materialism and lame ideological materialism, both of which leave little space for the Christian faith. I see a Church more aware of its Chinese vocation and aiming to give China the means to better take charge of its future; the life of religious communities re-emerges through social works, but not yet the monastic life, in a landscape that is nevertheless populated by bonzes. I also see a Church weakened by its most excruciating ordeal, that of its unity constantly rent both from within and from outside, but this Church – and it is a continuous miracle – remains, despite everything, one Church.
What seems increasingly needed and pressing is unity lived around the Pope, with the respect for the freedom of conscience, that every State must safeguard. And this reunification necessarily requires the Gospel way of reconciliation. The current situation of the Church is an anachronism, even in Marxist circles, and in the long run, it is becoming unhealthy. The wounds and grudges are still so alive that some people tend to protect their Catholic identity by hiding it under the guise of sects that are springing up everywhere. The Chinese Catholics more conscious of the fact that the credibility of their witness depends on their visible unity, rely for this on the support of the universal Church which cannot however, from far away, make the sacrifices required by their present condition. A bishop said to me: “We have built many churches, help us to build the Church of Peter and Paul”.
Like a roundabout of love, Pope John Paul II never stopped spinning around mainland China. He took the smallest opportunity to express his affection for Chinese Catholics: there are more than fifty statements of his on the matter. On 16 November 1983 he wrote directly to Deng Xiaoping a long letter that went unanswered. He was never able to enter mainland China, but in order to hold on to the greatest chance of achieving his most cherished apostolic dream he refused to accept repeated invitations from Taiwan, thus risking giving the impression of penalizing Catholics on the island. One should truly know his message of 24 October 2001, the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Matteo Ricci in Beijing.
As for the letter of Pope Benedict XVI, of 27 May 2007, large-minded, detailed and affectionate, its influence, which seems to be growing, can’t yet be measured.
The history of relations between the Church and China is littered with missed opportunities, often because of missteps which the Pope is the first to deplore. What has to be done is turn the page definitely, the oldest pages which Rome and Beijing had difficulty writing together, and the most recent, written separately in ignorance or in mutual distrust. The hour is a striking summons to all of us to make an “Olympic” leap so as to come together to meet the huge challenges that threaten people, above all in a rapidly changing China. Matteo Ricci teaches us that the Chinese people must be understood from inwards out, recognized and respected in its identity: it is on this foundation that dialogue, for which both parties feel a compelling need, must resume and develop.

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