China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2010/Mar

The response from China to Cardinal Bertone’s letter

Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone’s Letter to the Priests in China has been posted in Chinese on the Vatican website. He calls Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci, “the great missionary of China.”

In the 17th century, Ricci and his confrères in Beijing could not call Rome on their mobile phones. Instead, they wrote long letters. They sent two copies on different days by barges, 1,775 kilometres south on the Grand Canal to Hangzhou (杭州). Then ships sailed to Macau, hugging the coastline. From the Portuguese colony, one ship went the Spanish route: Manila, The Philippines, to Guam, then to Mexico or Panama, to Havana, Cuba, next to Spain and finally, to Rome. The longest time at sea was from Guam heading east. The Spanish sailed south of Hawaii and north of Tahiti, not noticing the birds flying between those islands.

The Portuguese route was via Malacca in Malaysia, Goa in India, around southern Africa to Portugal and finally to Rome. Sometimes ships could not leave port before the seasonal wind (monsoon) began to blow in the right direction. The second letter was insurance in case a ship sank or was captured by pirates. The missionaries were confident that they would get a reply within three years. Sometimes an answer came as quickly as two years and a couple of months.

If there had been e-mail back then, would the Chinese Rites Controversy have been avoided? Probably not. If instant communication could resolve all misunderstandings the whole world would be at peace today, including governments and Internet search engines.

The first telegraph line to connect Europe and Hong Kong began transmitting Morse Code in 1871. Telegrammes were not cheap. Less urgent news travelled by surface mail. For example, by train from New York to San Francisco, then by ship to Hawaii, Japan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Small boats from Hong Kong headed upriver into Guangdong (廣东) and Guangxi (廣西). As late as 1941, a writer in New York had to wait three months for a reply from southern China.

Silence from official news sources

By contrast, we live in an age of instant communication. Or do we? The papal Secretary of State issued his letter from the Vatican on 10 November 2009. What was the response from the government-recognised Church? Only dead silence came from that quarter. Academic sources are equally unlikely to publicise the letter in 2010.

Faith 10-day is an eight-page tabloid-size newspaper published in Shijiazhuang (石家莊). Formerly called Faith Fortnightly, it is the most widely read Catholic publication in China, with a circulation now approaching 50,000. The back page is devoted to international Church news, plus stories from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Issues number 31 through 36 from November and December, mentioned the Catholic Church in a variety of countries: England, Italy, Australia, India, Thailand, and Korea. Several stories came from Vietnam. Issue number 1 (1 January 2010), reported on Christmas in the Vatican.

When this story was current, neither Cardinal Bertone nor his letter made the headlines. Silence implies this is a sensitive topic. The Chinese Church knows what to print and not to print, meaning editors acquire a healthy respect for the limits of debate on sensitive topics. Self-censorship can work either through fear of Public Security agents confiscating all copies of an overly bold issue, or through fear of losing revenue as advertisers shun a controversial newspaper.

Several dioceses published monthly newsletters for a year or two in the 1990s or early in this century, but then they ceased. Did any of them get into trouble with the censors? Probably not. It requires staff and resources to continue even a thin newspaper.

A story from one country can hint at comparisons with China, without the editor needing to say anything explicitly. For example, it is safe to say that the photo of Pope Benedict XVI receiving Nguyen Minh Triet (阮明哲), the president of Vietnam, on 11 December 2009, expresses the hope that someday, a high-ranking official from Beijing will shake the Holy Father’s hand.

Vietnam and the Holy See do not have diplomatic relations and Church-state relations in 2009 were marked by confrontations about disputed land and buildings which had formerly belong to the Church. Despite those difficulties, Nguyen still included the Vatican on his European itinerary.

Faith Press also has a website: with hundreds of pages and photos. The English section is much smaller. Regular posting of international Church news stopped at the end of 2006, although occasionally, a domestic photo story is uploaded. Perhaps the people at Faith Press noticed how much news about the Church in China is available in English elsewhere on the Web and decided to spare their staff the job of translation.

Clicking international news gives over 2,500 stories in Chinese. For the 31 days from 14 November through 14 December 2009, there are 41 posted items, not one of which mentions a Letter to Priests. Cardinal Bertone’s missive is clearly too sensitive for Faith 10-day to publicise.

The diocese of Shanghai hosts an impressive website Befitting the size and wealth of China’s second city, the site contains explanatory material about the Church for first-time visitors, spirituality, plus local national and overseas news – but nothing leaps off the screen about Cardinal Bertone’s letter. There are gaps in the numbering of the news items. Maybe no one clicked to view a story, so it automatically got dropped after a few days.

Harder to explain are the periods without any news. For example, Item #6399 was posted on September 30, followed by Item #6471 on October 18, and after Item #6534 on November 2, nothing until Item #6605 on November 13. News items then resumed covering everything from the Holy Father’s Angelus comments to the earthquake in Haiti, but nothing about any Letter to the Priests in China. Was the Webmaster sick? It will not be easy to learn the reason(s) for the intermittent reporting.

At the national level, the Catholic Church in China always has two or three pages of overseas news. The 12 issues from 2008 and 2009 report the Year of St. Paul and the Year of the Priest, as well as Church events in various countries, but nothing from Rome addressed specifically to China. Page two lists the sponsors (主辦) as the Catholic Patriotic Association and the Chinese Bishops’ Conference. However, the Religious Affairs Bureau is listed first as the chief (主管) body responsible for the bimonthly magazine. We do not expect to see any references to Cardinal Bertone’s letter on those pages in 2010. Catholic Church in China has an e-mail address, but no website.

People’s University has had an Information Centre for Social Sciences since 1958, which now publishes a bimonthly academic journal called simply Religion (宗教). Clicking shows about 150 journals. The trail leads to a shopping cart icon for subscribers. If the centre posted everything online, it would lose money. Ink on paper still has a future. Religion covers mostly historical events and current international news.

China Religion (中國宗教) is a more popular magazine, with photos and current news. The table of contents helps foreign browsers by translating the titles of the articles into English. Flipping through a dozen monthly issues reveals nothing about Sino-Vatican relations or letters from Rome.

In the official realm, some stories simply do not count as news. There is a Chinese phrase for taking an action and getting no response, 石沈大海 “a stone sinks into the ocean,” or, as we say in English, “to vanish without a trace.”

Positive comments from individuals

By 18 November 2009, priests from three widely separated dioceses in China had responded favourably to Cardinal Bertone’s message. One priest called it “timely and useful,” another liked the cardinal’s concern for “young priests working alone soon after ordination,” while a third saw it helpful since “both clergy and laypeople have become very secular in outlook, thus they especially need spiritual formation.” Two of the three priests work in the official Church and one in the unofficial community.

Note that these responses reached Rome only eight days after the release of the letter. Ten years after Vatican II ended in December 1965, almost nobody inside China had seen any of 16 concilliar documents.

During the Cultural Revolution, if a bishop died in the Mainland, it might be several months before any China watcher in Hong Kong heard the news. News travels fast now through the Internet. Where Internet access ends, or in some places where dropping a letter into the mailbox is still risky, people resort to a slower, age-old method: word of mouth communication, or “alley news” (小道消息). Even in this case, the fact that millions now travel by bus, train and plane across the country ensures that news spreads quickly.

Word later came that some Catholics are concerned about a drop in the number of seminarians in recent years. They see the trend in vocations less favourably than does Cardinal Bertone. In spite of that clarification, everyone has expressed gratitude to the cardinal for writing a carefully worded message of concern, hope and encouragement.

Can anyone feel lonely in a country of 1.3 billion people? Certainly, including members of a “cognitive minority” such as Christians. It feels comforting to learn that someone in another continent is following events with concern and offering helpful advice and prayers.

While outside observers wish that print media and websites would not treat the cardinal’s Letter as a taboo topic, we can take comfort from the vast amount and variety of news from the universal Church that is being broadcast. Matteo Ricci never dreamed of getting the message to so many Chinese in a lifetime.