Home > Archives > 04 - 2005 > Meetings beyond the Great Wall
from issue no. 04 - 2005

Meetings beyond the Great Wall

Interview with Cardinal Roger Etchegaray

by Gianni Valente

Roger Etchegaray

Roger Etchegaray

Bai wen bu ru yi jian. A picture is worth a thousand words. Roger Etchegaray took the Chinese proverb literally. He is the only cardinal of the Holy Roman Church who has taken a plane four times and flown beyond the Great Wall, to go and see the real life of his brothers in the faith of the Church in China. The evangelical defenselessness with which he acts is judged as naivety by those who consign the destiny of the small Chinese Catholic flock to international pressures and the test of geopolitical forces. But it was always valued by John Paul II, who throughout his pontificate had in the French Basque cardinal a precious collaborator, to whom sensitive missions could be entrusted.
Now Etchegaray has collected the accounts of his Chinese journeys in a book [Verso I cristiani in Cina, (Towards the Christians in China, ed.) Mondadori, Milan 2005, 91pp.,15 euros]. This is the starting point of his conversation with 30Days, an interview in which the cardinal takes the opportunity to recall the ways in which the dead pontiff tried throughout his pontificate to keep the door open to the Chinese government: «Like in a courtship, John Paul II never ceased to pay attention to the People’s Republic of China. Using every possible recourse, he made use of the smallest occasions to express his affectionate concern for the Chinese Catholics. He devoted 51 statements to China. In 1983 he wrote a long letter to Deng Xiaoping, which went unanswered. He was never able to go to China, but so as to have more chance of realizing his most cherished apostolic dream he refused repeated invitations from Taiwan».
Your Eminence, for you the meeting with China and its Church was written by destiny.
ROGER ETCHEGARAY: Perhaps that’s so. I was born in Espelette, a small village in the French Basque regions. The castle, when I was a child, housed both the secular school and the presbytery under the same roof. I attended both with a spirit equally respectful of the priest and the teacher. I was an altar boy, and was impressed by the large painting in the church which showed two 16th century Basque saints, Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier …
The family roots of Saint Francis Xavier, “the apostle of the East”, lay in the villages of your area.
ETCHEGARAY: A sister of his lived in the castle of Esplette itself. And then, only a hundred meters from my house, Father Armand David had also lived, the great naturalist-missionary. We were trained in the same seminary, a century apart. In the mid 19th he traveled China far and wide in three successive missions. It was he who made the panda, the black and white bear that became the symbol of the WWF, known outside China. And my last journey to China, in 2003, took place under the banner of the panda, with a Basque delegation led by the mayor of Espelette, in the footsteps of the ancient missionary our fellow countryman …
But on your Chinese journeys you saw a lot besides. Let’s start at the beginning.
ETCHEGARAY: What I saw in 1980 during my first journey was another China. They were coming out of the crazy years of the Cultural Revolution. After a decade of absolute isolation they knew well that continuing with political and economic isolation would lead to catastrophe. The China of Deng Xiaoping felt a great need for friends, for openings, for new contacts. In that climate I was invited by the Association of Chinese People for Friendship with Foreigners. «We have friends throughout the world» a slogan said on the propaganda posters all the way from the airport to the center of the city…
And you were received as a friend. What struck you most?

ETCHEGARAY: At the advisory political Conference of the Chinese people, in a meeting that lasted four hours, they asked me demanding questions, such as: how can it be that in the West people are not interested in religion, whereas in the countries where it is attacked it persists or even re-blooms? And how can you exercise your independence as bishop of Marseilles without undergoing the “imperialism” of the Pope? I then found out that the recordings of that discussion made the rounds of many communist circles…
In those years they reopened the churches and the priests were released from the re-education centers. But whoever refused to “collaborate” with the government organizations often remained inside.
ETCHEGARAY: I spoke about this with Ulanfu himself, the Mongolian who was then president of the National Assembly. I told him that the part of the Church that remained underground was not seeking any privileges but only aspired to enjoy a minimum of freedom to live and testify to its own faith. When I arrived in Shanghai, the program included a meeting with the bishop nominated without agreement with the Pope. But in those years the legitimate bishop, Ignazio Gong Pinmei, was still in prison. I made it understood that I would see the former only if they also allowed me to visit Gong Pinmei in prison. And so the visit with the “patriotic” bishop, who had already rolled out the red carpet to receive me, was cancelled from the program …
There are still some who allude to the Chinese priests who in those years accepted to be consecrated bishops without the apostolic papal mandate as agents in the pay of the regime …
ETCHEGARAY: My experience from many meetings suggests quite the contrary to me. I recount some in the book. Such as the time in Canton, during my first journey, when the illegitimate bishop Yeh Yinyun was also invited to an official dinner. At the end of the meal I turned to him to offer him a rosary blessed by the Pope. He first raised his finger, like a student at school, to ask the communist official who sat next to me for permission to speak. And then he stood up, knelt in front of me and kissed my cardinal’s ring. A public gesture to testify to his communion of spirit with the Pope …
And yet, in those years, the propaganda advocating independence by the regime which wanted a Chinese Church without ties with the Apostolic See and the whole universal Church was incessant.
ETCHEGARAY: But even then very few allowed themselves to be conditioned, perhaps through fear or human weakness. The sensus fidei of Chinese Catholics, perhaps also because of the travails suffered, has always defended the communion of faith with the Apostolic See and the bishop of Rome as a precious good. In fact, a perception of the importance of apostolic succession for the life of the Church is evident there when it is perhaps not in evidence elsewhere. I often think back on what an old Chinese bishop said to a Western guest pointing to the floor of his residence: «Under my feet we have hidden the remains of the first bishop. They have been there for thirty years. Few of us know this. You don’t know what the apostolic tradition means. It is the transmission of the Living down to us. Your missionary brothers brought it to us. This is the Church. Those bones are sacred. They are the bond with the Church in all times and in all places. Report this, in Europe. We have preserved those bones, we have continued to love Christ».
But on your journeys in China you also had some delicate moments. A s in 2000…
ETCHEGARAY: The Chinese regime took the Vatican’s choice to canonize the Chinese martyrs on October 1 itself, the anniversary of the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China, as a provocation. My visit took place in the middle of the storm. In an hour and a half’s conversation with the vice premier he gave me a lecture on the approaching canonization ceremony. Two days afterwards I also had a tense discussion that lasted more than three hours with Ye Xiaowen, the Director of the Office for Religious Affairs, who had come back from a foreign mission precisely because of that… The coincidence in date was a very distressing fact. I sought to make it understood that the Church had no wish to cause provocation.
In your book you write that the long march toward rapprochement between the Catholic Church and China is paved with misunderstandings, deliberate disruption, lost opportunities. What are the mistaken conceptions at work in the present situation?
ETCHEGARAY: Those who describe the situation of the Chinese Church today as if nothing has changed since the end of the ’seventies, instead of taking new facts into account, are engaged in disinformation according to me …
For example?
ETCHEGARAY: The part of the Church recognized by the government is without doubt linked to and controlled by the Patriotic Association, but one can’t say that it is totally manipulated and subjugated by that Association. The dioceses enjoy sufficient freedom in the pastoral ministry, they follow the Roman directives in teaching and in ecclesiastical discipline.
But it can’t be denied that there are problems for religious freedom.
ETCHEGARAY: Naturally. Even if the time of the great persecutions are over, arrests and coercive measures still occur against the religious and the communities that reject the control of the patriotic organizations. But one has to consider that the control of all religions by the public authorities was a constant rule of Chinese politics well before communism arrived. The current policy of the state in its content and style proves that down to today there has been no true religious freedom, the cornerstone of human rights. But worship, the administration of the sacraments, devotional practices are in fact considered an internal affair of the Church and generally speaking are not in themselves subjected to government interference.
But according to the Chinese government even the nomination of bishops by the Apostolic See represents a form of “interference” in internal affairs.

ETCHEGARAY: But as we know, the majority of the bishops recognized by the government and nominated in the past without apostolic mandate have subsequently obtained canonical legitimacy of their nomination from the Holy See. And in the past year there have been important innovations on this point: three young bishops, on the day of their episcopal consecration, openly proclaimed that it was the Pope who had nominated them.
The division between the “open” and the “underground” communities is sometimes painful and full of rancor …
ETCHEGARAY: And yet in many local situations the frontiers between the two communities become ever more fluid. And there are cases of reconciliation that with time could become a model for everyone, if a compassion toward everyone prevails and people do not shut themselves into sectarian defense of their own position.
And the future? What are the uncertainties and the signs of hope?
ETCHEGARAY: On my first journey, Ulanfu, thinking to do me an honour, introduced me to the National Assembly as the «high official of a great Western religion». Undergoing the years of persecution and isolation, perhaps the Church in China, along with so much suffering, has also received an unexpected gift: now no one in China can present the Church as a “foreign” religious organization. It seems a point to keep intact: a Chinese must not first become Western in order to experience the tenderness of Christ toward every man. This was the way indicated already by the great Jesuit Matteo Ricci: that the Church in China be fully Catholic and fully Chinese.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português