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The Church and the Chinese Government: An interview with Fr. Joseph Shih

Antonio Spadaro, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Dec 13th 2022

Fr. Joseph-Shih
Fr. Joseph Shih, SJ, meets me just a few meters from the Vatican at the entrance to the St. Peter Canisius Jesuit Residence. La Civiltà Cattolica has already published two of his articles[1] but I have never met him. The man is 90 years old, and he gives me a warm, smiling welcome. His face carries the marks of a life of many moments, and the traces that remain communicate an experience of serenity and deep peace.

I ask him about himself; I want him to tell me who he is.

“My parents had five boys and five girls. All were born and grew up in the Shanghai region,” he tells me. And he goes on: “I was born at Ningbo, a port city south of Shanghai, and spent my early childhood with my maternal grandma, in the countryside. I don’t remember when I arrived in Shanghai. I know I studied in Zikawei, a locality now better known as Xujiahui, at the St. Louis School and then at St. Ignatius College. I went to Mass every day in the parish church. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, the Canadian Jesuits working at Xuzhou converged on the residence in Xujiahui. Some of them came to Mass in my parish regularly. When I finished studying at St. Ignatius College in 1941 my desire to become a Jesuit had matured. On August 30, 1944, I entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained priest in the Philippines, March 18, 1957.”

I ask him about his formation, what stages he went through, and if he traveled the world. He tells me he was in Rome and then in Germany and Austria. Next he was called back to Rome to study and teach at the Pontifical Gregorian University. To prepare for teaching, he studied at Harvard for a year and a half and then took six months traveling in Africa observing the effects of national independence on the Catholic Church in that continent.

Later, the Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, advised him to go to Latin America too for the same kind of study. And so he got to know Brazil and Argentina. In Rome he taught at the Gregorian University for 35 years and worked at Vatican Radio for 25 years in the Chinese section.

“There was Fr. Michael Chu,” he continues, “who would come and celebrate the Sunday Mass that we would transmit for China. Fr. Berchmans Chang would regularly send his articles on theology and spirituality. Fr. Matteo Chu had a mailbox that was used to discuss the problems of the Church in China with our listeners.”

In 2007, when Jesuit Fr. Lim Hwan was put in charge of the Chinese section of Vatican Radio, Fr. Shih left Rome.

“Since then,” he tells me, “I spend my time mostly in Shanghai. I know my task is to be a witness for the Catholic Church, which is one, wherever it is. In Shanghai or in Rome, it is the same Church: one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.”

Pope Francis has a particular space in his heart for the life of the Church in China and the future of Chinese Catholics. He accompanies them in prayer, and he follows them with paternal love. How is this special attention perceived in China?

Of the three recent pontiffs, the one I know best is St. John Paul II: he loved his country, he sympathized with the Third World, and he understood the history of the Church in China.

During his pontificate he worked hard to promote reconciliation between the Church in China and the Chinese government. Sadly, due to his role in the collapse of the communist governments in Europe, the Chinese government did not trust him.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter to the Catholic Church in China[2] to trace a pathway out of the current difficulties. He also composed a prayer to Our Lady of Sheshan, inviting Catholics of the whole world to pray for the Church in China. We Chinese Catholics are very grateful and respect him. Pope Francis is much loved in China: everyone appreciates his style and perceives his fatherly love.

On the social and economic level, China has changed much in recent years and has seen a rapid and impressive development. Has the life of the Church changed with that of society? What is your own experience?

Yes, the life of the Church has changed together with society. In fact, Chinese Catholics mostly lived in the rural areas but now the young people from the villages are looking for work in the cities. Often their parents follow them to look after their children. So the villages are being deserted. The churches lose their parishioners. The old Catholics are dispersed.

On the other hand, even if the Chinese have become richer in recent years, they don’t feel any happier for this. Indeed, they are more restless. Now they have to worry about finding a job, buying a house, providing an education for their children and ensuring they have a dignified old age.

Among the many concerns, religious meaning emerges spontaneously. We shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that in recent years, the number of followers of the various religions in China has grown notably. The Catholic Church is no exception.

I now live in Zikawei, which was once a Christian village, part of the Xujiahui locality. Christian families used to live around the church of St. Ignatius, which was the parish church. Now Xujiahui has become a commercial center of the city of Shanghai. The old houses have all been demolished. Those who lived there before have all moved elsewhere.

Now on Saturday evenings and on Sundays there are seven Masses in the church of St. Ignatius. It is always full. Some of the old parishioners of Xujiahui gather at the first Sunday Mass, while all the others are mostly the new faithful who come from different parts of the country. Among these, many youngsters and intellectuals.

The current sociocultural context in China is notable for its vast array of experiences. A simplistic approach would be misleading and unable to give an account of Chinese complexity with its different shades. We need to go beyond prejudices and the appearances. In short, do we have to be pessimists or optimists? How is the Catholic community in China living this historical moment?

I’m an optimist. Above all, because I believe in God. God is the Lord of human history.

Whatever way human history proceeds, it never becomes unconnected from the salvific plan of God, aimed at the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Then, as you said, you need to go beyond prejudices and appearances. If we avoid remaining in our prejudices and learn how to look beyond appearances, we discover that the fundamental values of socialism dreamt by the Chinese government are not incompatible with the Gospel we believe in.

And if the Church in our country can live a reciprocal tolerance with our government, we can live and act in our country. So I am not a pessimist; I am an optimist.

Both in the Church and in international public opinion much is said about the ongoing dialogue between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. A wise observer knows that the aims of the conversation are essentially pastoral, before being political, social and diplomatic. Naturally, every encounter requires both the purification of memory and the will to write a new page of history. How are Chinese Catholics managing to live out reconciliation and promote communion in the Church?

In China the government only recognizes five religions. On each of these it imposes some organs of control. The Catholic Church is one of these five religions, but not everybody in the Catholic Church in China accepts this situation. So, from a governmental point of view, there are two parts in the Catholic Church in China. The government recognizes the part that accepts its laws and does not recognize the one that rejects them. I refer here to the laws on religious activity.

Western media speak of the official or Patriotic Church, and of the clandestine Church, the one not recognized by the government. Catholics who live in China are aware of these definitions, but they know how to distinguish between the religious politics of the government and their own faith. For them, in China there is only one Church: the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. In this one Church there are two distinct communities, each with its own bishops and priests. There are often disputes between them that are not due to differences in faith but are rather expressions of a conflict of religious interests.

Moreover, after the repeated calls from Pope John Paul II, the two parts have started to reconcile with each other. The episcopal ordination of Bishop Xing Wenzhi, in 2005, is eloquent proof. Now, those who oppose the dialogue between the Holy See and the Chinese government are accentuating and exaggerating the difference between the “official Church” and the “clandestine Church,” and unscrupulously make the most of it to impede the ongoing dialogue. This is unhelpful for the life and mission of the Church in China.

In similar situations it is often said that we need to have some “healthy realism.” How can this principle be applied to the Chinese case?

The Chinese government is communist. This is something that won’t change for a long time. Yet the Church in China has to have some kind of relation with the Chinese government. What relation? Opposition? That would be suicidal. Compromise? No, for it would mean the Church loses her own identity.

So the only possible relation is that of reciprocal tolerance. Tolerance is not the same as compromise. Compromise gives something away to the other, up to a level that the other finds satisfying. Tolerance gives nothing away, nor does it require that the other give way. Reciprocal tolerance between the Church in China and the Chinese government does need a premise, which is that the Holy See not be opposed to the Chinese government.

In fact, if the Holy See were opposed to the Chinese government, the Church in China would be forced to choose between the two and would necessarily choose the Holy See. So the Church would be intolerable in the eyes of the Chinese government. We could ask: but if the Holy See were not opposed to the Chinese government, would the latter tolerate the Church in China? We can only say that the Catholic Church in China exists and functions. This means that tolerance is already experienced in some form.

In the light of this “healthy realism,” how can we interpret the troubled human and ecclesial case of Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai?

Thaddeus Ma Daqin was ordained bishop on July 7, 2012. In that moment he was a bishop accepted by both parts: by the Holy See and by the Chinese government. However, due to the declaration by which he left the patriotic association, he was forced to retreat to Sheshan and was unable to exercise his episcopal ministry.

In the month of June last year, he published on his website an article in which he stated it was a mistake for him to leave the patriotic association. More recently, on April 6 last, Easter Day, he went to the province of Fujian and publicly celebrated with Zhan Silu, an “illegitimate” bishop. This is why the Western media talked about a change of direction, his betrayal.

I know Bishop Ma Daqin very well. He has not changed direction, nor has he surrendered; I think rather that he has “reawakened.” You see, many people say that they love China, but they have an abstract idea of the country. They love perhaps the China of Confucius or of Chiang Kai-shek. For Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, loving China means loving the real China, today’s China, the China governed by the Communist Party. So he no longer believes that the Church has to necessarily oppose the Chinese government.

Rather he has understood that to exist and play a part in today’s China, the Church must at least make itself tolerable in the eyes of the government. Thaddeus Ma Daqin is a Chinese bishop with a healthy realism. The fact that he went to Mindong and concelebrated with the “illegitimate” Bishop Zhan Silu was, in fact, an effort to reconcile with the Chinese government.

Thaddeus Ma Daqin is a Chinese bishop living in China. Even if he is currently under house arrest, he is trying to engage positively with his government. I hope the Holy See will sustain him and allow him to continue trying. During his pontificate, John Paul II insisted a lot on the reconciliation between the Church in China and the Chinese government. Now Bishop Ma Daqin is seeking to make it happen. May St. John Paul II bless him from heaven!

There have been many bishops, priests and laity in recent decades who have suffered through witnessing to their faith and their love for the Church. What does their faithfulness teach the Church today and to the new generations?

Your question brings to mind a homily I gave for the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time. That day we read from the Gospel of Matthew.[3] I said in my homily:

“The words that you heard are said by Jesus to his disciples. Hearing them, we might have the impression that Jesus was being very severe, even too harsh. In fact he said that we don’t have to fear those who can kill our body, but not our soul; we should fear instead the one who sends both our body and our soul to hell. We have to know that Jesus, who wants to save us, cannot save those who don’t have the courage to confess their own faith. On the other hand, Jesus assured us that we have no need to fear. For God, who looks after the two sparrows or a hair on our heads, also takes care of us.”

The many bishops, priests and laity who have suffered to testify to their faith and their love for the Church have understood and followed this teaching of Jesus. Now with their personal example they transmit it to us too and to the new generations. Moreover, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the new Christians.”[4]

Thanks to their merits, today we Catholics in China have a level of peace and the number of those attending Mass in our parishes has grown. We are grateful for this.

What are your personal hopes for the future path of Chinese Catholics?

My hope is that we not become like the people who live outside China and are concerned for the Catholics in China in a manner that is incongruous, and that damages the Church. My hope is that the Catholics in China are not forced to go elsewhere, so becoming guests or refugees. I hope that we Chinese Catholics can live an authentically Christian life in our country. Currently there is a dialogue underway between the Holy See and the Chinese government: I hope that the Holy See does not challenge the Chinese government with ideals that are too high and unrealistic, which would force us to choose between the Church and the Chinese government.

[1] See J. Shih, “Il metodo missionario di Matteo Ricci,” in Civ. Catt. 1983 I 141-150; Id., “La Chiesa cattolica in Cina. Una testimonianza,” ibid. 2016 II 369-374.

[2] Benedict XVI, “Letter to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China,” Rome, May 27, 2007. See La Civilità Cattolica, “Nota esplicativa sulla lettera di Benedetto XVI ai cattolici cinesi,” in Civ. Catt. 2007 III 107.

[3] Specifically Mt 10:26-33.

[4] Cf. Tertullian, Apologeticus, Chapter 50.


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