On 1 October 1980, the first four founding members—Father John Tong (Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong), Father Angelo Lazzarotto of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), Father Elmer Wurth and Father Peter Barry, of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers (MM)—opened the doors of the Holy Spirit Study Centre on the grounds of the Holy Spirit Seminary, Aberdeen, Hong Kong.
The primary attitude of staff members on this milestone anniversary is one of thanksgiving. First of all, we must thank God for the many graces he has bestowed on our centre throughout the last 40 years.
Secondly, we must thank John Baptist Cardinal Wu, then the ordinary bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, for having the foresight to set up the centre to act as a bridge between the resurrected Church in China and the universal Catholic Church. We must also thank the rector and staff of the Holy Spirit Seminary for giving us space for our office.
We must thank former staff members, like Father John Cioppa MM, who in 1979, when he was on the Maryknoll General Council, assigned Father Elmer Wurth and Father Peter Barry, and later, Father Michael Sloboda to Hong Kong for China research work.
We thank the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP) and the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM) for respectively assigning Father Angelo Lazzarotto, Father Gianni Criveller and Father Sergio Ticozzi, Father Bruno Lepeu and Father Pierre Jeanne, and Father Leo Van den Berg and Father Patrick Taveirne to work in our centre. Father Carlos Linera of the Dominicans also worked with us for many years. And let us not forget Jesuit Father Norman Walling, SJ, and Father Ray O’Toole of Scarboro Missions.
We thank the Maryknoll Sisters for assigning Sister Betty Ann Maheu, Sister Maureen Corr and Sister Miriam Xavier Mug and the Sisters of the Precious Blood for assigning Sister Beatrice Leung and Sister Goretti Lau to our centre. The latter Sisters served as editors of the Chinese side of Tripod (later replaced by Catholic layperson, Anthony Lam), while Sister Maheu was editor of the English side for many years. We also thank all the faithful staff, past and present, who have worked with us over the years.
Above all, we thank the members of the Ricci Study Team, and all our benefactors, who have supported us with their gifts and prayers over these 40 years, and we ask God to continually bless them with good health and many graces throughout their lives.
Looking back, I think we can say that during these 40 years we have never wavered from the mission given us by the centre’s real founder, Cardinal Wu, who instructed us: “Build a bridge between our brothers and sisters inside and outside of China, promoting the mission of reconciliation through the gospel.”
When Holy Spirit Study Centre first started, our initial purpose was simply to help the Church in China to get back on its feet. In the beginning we sent Bibles, catechisms and missals, and religious articles, such as medals and rosaries, to the newly awakening Christian communities in China. Then we helped the various dioceses, now numbering about 100, from the 144 in 1949, to apply for funding from overseas agencies to re-build churches, seminaries and convents.
Exchange visits soon began to take place. An example of visits abroad by church people from China, was the invitation in 1986 of the United States (US) Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities to 10 Chinese bishops, priests and lay people to visit the US. It was the first such visit in almost 40 years.
The bishops were Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan of Beijing, Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai, and Bishop Bernardine Dong Guangqing of Wuhan, plus some priests and lay people. Father Laurence T. Murphy MM, at that time secretary general of the association, organized the trip.
The group visited the University of San Francisco, Notre Dame, Fordham, Saint Elizabeth’s in Convent Station, New Jersey, and the Catholic University in Washington, DC. In every place the delegation met local Church leaders, as well as university personnel. Father John Tong and Father Peter Barry accompanied the group as translators.
The staff of the Holy Spirit Study Centre.
Photo: Holy Spirit Study Centre
In recent years, Father Bruno Lepeu, MEP, and Annie Lam of our centre organized formation programmes for Chinese Catholics on Church-related topics, such as marriage and family. The participants and their Church leaders greatly appreciated these exchanges.
All the above activities have been written up in previous publications, most notably in a pictorial history Sister Maheu, then English editor of the centre’s journal, Tripod, edited for the centre’s 25th anniversary in 2005. Tripod, 197 issues of which have been published since 1980, started as a vehicle for dialogue with Chinese intellectuals.
I would like now to relate some satisfying experiences of my own involvement in this China liaison work. One day during the summer of 1994 I went up to Jilin Province in China’s northeast, to visit some members of my missionary society, Maryknoll, who were teaching English in the Korean Autonomous Region.
Maryknoll used to be in charge of the Diocese of Fushun in that area. Since I speak Mandarin, one of my confr?res suggested that I stop at the Jilin Seminary to see if I could be of any help to them. So that’s what I did.
When I met the rector of the seminary, the first words out of his mouth were, “Qing jiao women yixie dongxi,”— “Please teach us something.” The reader must remember that there were not many trained professors in Chinese seminaries in those days. Two old priests taught catechism from old manuals and acted as spiritual directors. The rector taught moral theology and a deacon taught dogmatic theology. Not really knowing what to say, I blurted out: “OK, give me a Chinese Bible.” I stayed at the seminary for three days. My next problem was what to teach the seminarians.
Luckily I studied theology at Maryknoll from 1961 to 1965, at the same time that Vatican Council II was taking place in Rome. Almost every day, our professors would tell us what was happening at the council.
One day, in April 1964, our professor of New Testament came into class brandishing a document in his hand. Waving it, he said one sentence: “Now we can believe in Sitz im leben.” That was a German phrase which meant “situation in life.” The document, issued that month by the Biblical Commission in Rome, was entitled Sancta Mater Ecclesia, and was on the historicity of the gospels. It pointed out that there were three stages in the formation of the gospels: the situation in the life of Jesus, the situation of the early Church and the situation of the evangelist.
German Protestant biblical scholars expounded this theory of Bible study in the mid-1800s. The Biblical Commission’s document declared that now we Catholics could accept this process in the formation of the gospels. This explanation was also incorporated into Vatican II’s own document on Revelation, Dei Verbum, the following year, 1965 (paragraph 19).
I told my students in Jilin in 1994, that while the Gospels are historically accurate, we may wonder why some things were chosen to be included and other things left out. As a conclusion to his gospel John would write: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name” (John 20: 30-31). The written word was meant to lead people to faith and life in Christ.
I also pointed out the characteristics of each of the four gospels. For instance, Matthew’s gospel has passages like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, ‘love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.’” Or, something Jesus said or did was to “fulfil” what Isaiah or another Old Testament prophet had said. One of Luke’s characteristics is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” whenever Jesus or one of the Apostles said or did something. John has many “I am” sayings, like I am the way, the truth and the life,” “I am the bread of life,” I am the Good Shepherd,” etc. Mark emphasizes the suffering and death of Jesus, and that to be a disciple of Jesus, one must take up his or her own cross and follow Jesus. I emphasized that Catholic seminarians must recognize these distinguishing characteristics of the Gospels.
I told them that the 1964 document of the Biblical Commission is an example of St. Anselm’s definition of theology, Fides quaerens intellectum,—“Faith seeking understanding.”
The three stages in the formation of the gospels are tools to help us understand the background of the gospels. In fact, they were also incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church of Pope John Paul II in 1994 (para. 126), which however calls them by a different name: 1. the life and teaching of Jesus, 2. the oral tradition, and 3. the written Gospels. (Cf. paragraph #19 of Vatican II’s Dei Verbum).
That single incident in my life demonstrates what we have been trying to do at our centre for the last 40 years. We were not just passing on knowledge, but “a spirit.” Just as my professors at Maryknoll imparted to me a love for the sacred scriptures, so too, 30 years later, in 1994, I was trying to impart a spirit of love for the Word of God to the seminarians of the Jilin Seminary.
I took my inspiration from the last chapter of Luke’s Gospel, where the two Emmaus disciples said to one another: “Were not our hearts burning within us, as we were walking on the road and he explained the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32), and as Luke describes Jesus doing later for a larger group of disciples: “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24: 45).
*An earlier version of this article was published in the Sunday Examiner on November 29, 2020.