‘The Church in China has never changed a single iota of the Apostolic Tradition that was delivered to it’
Interview with John Baptist Li Suguang Coadjutor Bishop of Nanchang
Interview with John Baptist Li Suguang by Gianni Valente
At the twenty-fifth International Prayer Meeting for Peace held in Munich by the Community of Saint Egidio, he was also there: John Baptist Li Suguang, 46 year-old Catholic bishop in mainland China with the consent both of the Successor of Peter and also of the government officials in Beijing. So young and timid as to be almost lost among the many religious leaders called from 11 to 13 September last to the Bavarian capital by the network of friendships and closeness without borders that the Community founded by Andrea Riccardi continues to weave around the world.
Yet, when he spoke in one of the 35 panels that marked the event hosted by the Archdiocese of Munich, the voice appeared decisive and the ideas clear. His speech was punctuated with allusions and references to the complex and unresolved trilateral network of relationships that for centuries have involved the West, the Catholic Church and the former Celestial Empire. Such as the Chinese proverb that Monsignor Li used to remind everyone that also in the fluid times of globalization ‘a long distance can become as close as nearness’. Or as the clear confirmation of the fact – verified in his experience as a pastor of souls – that ‘the Church does not lose its universality by respecting Chinese culture and considering the actual circumstances in China’.
John Baptist Li Suguang on the occasion of the twenty-fifth International Prayer Meeting for Peace organised in Munich by the Community of Saint Egidio last September [© Tino Veneziano]
JOHN BAPTIST LI SUGUANG: I was born in 1965, in a village in Shanxi Province where the population of about two thousand inhabitants shared a very strong Catholic faith. I grew up like that, in the midst of many people who loved Jesus
And yet those were difficult years. The cultural revolution was in full swing.
In my village there weren’t too many problems. There were two priests who continued to administer the sacraments. Now, in the village there are four or five. In the surrounding areas there are in fact thirty-eight priests. And there are also many sisters.
What helped you to recognize your vocation to the priesthood?
What I saw in the family was very important. I had a priest uncle, and when I was very young, my mother and father showed me how to pray, reciting the morning and evening prayers. I was the youngest of the family, and my parents often told me that I could grow up to become a priest. My mother especially had great influence on me, through her spiritual life. Then a priest whom I met in the diocesan seminary in Beijing as my spiritual father also had an important role. I was there from 1987 to 1992. Our teachers were very old priests, and we studied theology using principally old manuals from before the Second Vatican Council.
How has the condition of the Church changed compared with the years of your childhood?
When I was a young boy, the country had yet to experience the season of openness. In the villages it was the devotion of the Christians who conserved the practices of the life of faith. Now there is more opportunity to carry out pastoral work. On Sundays the churches are full, certainly more so than in many European parishes. In the villages, when the church bell rings, people come out of their houses and you see them walk together along the streets, directed towards the church. And also the daily masses, early in the morning, are very popular.
How would you describe the pastoral profile of your diocese?
In our province there are a hundred and twenty thousand Catholics, the priests throughout the province are less than fifty. So only the larger parishes have a priest who remains as pastor of the community in a stable manner. The others circulate from village to village, from one parish to another, to administer the sacraments. The good thing is that many of them are young, and compared to them I am the “old one”... The average age of the priests in my diocese is thirty-six. At the economic level, the diocese owns some buildings in Shanghai which with their incomes help to finance the ordinary activities.
What is it that most facilitates the Christian message?
The most important thing is the presence of lay people who proclaim and witness the Gospel in the places and circumstances in which everyone lives. And then the works of charity are very important. In our country each religious community is called upon to assist and support a minority ethnic group. We Catholics also do so ourselves, assisting some minority ethnic communities, which are not of Christian faith.
Are there many baptisms of people who do not come from Christian families?
We have almost three thousand a year. Two thirds of them are young, then there is a third of adults and the elderly. Most are from rural villages. They request baptism mainly because they are struck by the witness of their fellow Christians and friends, or because they see the spectacle of Christians who take care of the poor and the needy.
What are the sources that feed the ordinary, everyday lives of the faithful?
The Mass is the heart of it all, along with prayer and participation in the activities offered by the parish.
Are there figures of saints who arouse particular devotion?
In our region there is very strong devotion to St Anthony of Padua and Little Theresa of the Child Jesus. And then, of course, the Virgin Mary. Everyone has the Blessed Virgin Mary as patroness of their own spiritual life.
What are the social realities and existential conditions that you encounter in your pastoral work?
Because of the rapid development of the Chinese economy, many people are under pressure in their lives. They really need someone to help them. Someone to give them comfort and consolation, who will support them. Many realize that they are not able to go on without some help. This widens the range in which the Church is called to work and show the love of Christ for everyone. We can not remain indifferent to these real conditions. And we need to favor a pastoral work that is of true support for our fellow citizens who are up against some problems and difficulties in their lives.
Did you read the letter Benedict XVI wrote to Chinese Catholics in 2007? And what are the most important contents of that document for you?
From my point of view, the very fact that the Pope addressed a specific letter to Chinese Catholics has been a great encouragement for the Church in China. In particular the things the Pope suggested to the priests impressed me.
You were ordained a bishop in 2010 with the consent of the Apostolic See. How do you concretely live your communion with the Bishop of Rome? And how do you express it in your ordinary pastoral work?
Not only I, but also the other Chinese bishops, always read and circulate not only the Pope’s letter to Chinese Catholics of 2007, but also all of his talks, homilies, encyclicals, speeches. Photocopies are made and sent to all priests and all parishes. So that everyone can read and follow the Pope in his ordinary magisterium, and thus may well find inspiration for their lives in the situations in which they find themselves. In this way we share the faith of the successor of Peter, and this is really the most simple and concrete way possible to live the communion with the Pope, that everyone can see. Then we pray for him. All the bishops pray for him. I pray for him, and pray for myself also, that the Lord will help me be a good bishop.
Chinese faithful in prayer in a Beijing church [© Getty Images]
It would be a great gift if the Pope could understand China, that is the concrete cultural and social situation in which the Church finds itself living in China. There is much to know, much to comprehend. Sometimes there are those who spend a week in China and then go home and begin to pretend they know all about the events in the history of Chinese Catholics. Instead complex situations must be recognized and respected for what they are. I really hope that relations between China and the Vatican can resume in the right direction. It would be a good thing for us and for the entire Church.
If you would also like to suggest to the Pope an indication as to how God has preserved and continues to nourish the faith of Chinese Catholics, to document that the Church of China shares the same faith with the Church of Rome, what would you tell him?
The fundamental question is how also the Chinese bishops live and express their faith in union with the Successor of Peter and the whole universal Church. So, I believe that from the beginning until now our Church in China has never changed a single iota of the Apostolic Tradition that was delivered to it. We have not changed a comma of the doctrine that concerns the faith and the great discipline of the Church. We are united around the same sacraments, recite the same prayers, in the continuity of the apostolic succession. This is the basis of authentic communion. Even with our limitations and all our failings and frailties, we are a part of, we are of the number of the Holy Universal Church, we share with our brothers throughout the world the fidelity to the same Apostolic Tradition. We do not want to change anything.
Some observers argue instead that some people are still trying to build a new independent and self-sufficient Church, different from the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church.
This is others’ thinking. These are the opinions of others, not ours. No Church is self-sufficient, no Church can live without the gift of the Spirit of Christ. I repeat, now in China no priest and no bishop has the intention of changing the Church’s doctrine. In China also, the love of Christ manifests itself in acceptance and understanding. In today’s world, despite the processes of globalization, there are still many differences. For example, mutual understanding is difficult between China and Europe. We need to find points of contact and dialogue, day after day; it is the only way to bring such different worlds close to each other. So I hope that the universal Church may accept and recognize the Church in China for what it really is. Without isolating it and mistreating it, so that communion grows as a sign of the love of Christ. As bishop, I only hope that the spirit of Christ’s love also spreads and shines throughout all of China.