China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2011/Apr

Taking the long view: Easter Pope John Paul II and China

Living with nature and with human beings requires flexibility. Neither events in the sky nor people on earth are easily predictable. This applies to the weather, the moon and to the changes in China during the long papacy of Pope John Paul II from 1978 to 2005.

As unpredictable as weather

Weather is day to day, while climate refers to patterns year after year. For example, typhoons are part of the climate in Hong Kong and it is safe to generalise: “June too soon, July stand by, August a must, September remember, October all over.” However, severe typhoons, which people remember years later, are not limited to September and our weather observatory knows better than to predict a storm weeks in advance.

After surviving a shipwreck, St. Paul had to spend the winter on the island of Malta (Acts 27-28), since the Mediterranean climate made sailing dangerous during the winds of winter. In the following 18 centuries, sailing ships improved, yet a strong wind could delay departure for a day or two. Doldrums (windless areas) could take the wind out of their sails and force the crew to row to where the captain hoped wind was blowing. The ship had to reach land before all the fresh water on board was consumed. “When my ship comes in” meant “when my lucky day comes,” but ships did not always reach port. A number of Jesuit and Dominican missionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries never reached east Asia.

Punctual planets, seemingly straying moon

Ancient people knew the clouds were chaotic, while higher objects were serene and predictable. Patient observation revealed patterns in the sky and cycles for the sun, moon, planets and stars. Aristotle believed that decay was limited to below the orbit of the moon, while everything above was eternal and incorruptible. The moon was close enough to the earth to show a tinge of imperfection: the dark markings on its surface.

For technical reasons, the path of the moon is slightly perturbed and erratic. Predicting its exact position in the sky was the only calculation that ever gave the great astronomer, Isaac Newton (1642 to 1726), a headache.

Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring. The Internet has tables listing Easter in coming years. Don’t try to compute the date at home; the math is horrendous. In the early centuries, there were heated arguments in the Church as to when to celebrate Easter. There is a pattern, but it is not apparent to the casual observer. Thus the date of Easter seems to jump unpredictably from year to year.

Ships sailing on time

With the invention of the steam engine, ships could move without wind and even against the wind. Sailing schedules became predictable instead of hit and miss. Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844 marvelled at vessels arriving and departing “with the punctuality of a planet.” People felt optimistic, powerful, and in control of nature.

However, some risk remained. St. Michael’s Cemetery in Happy Valley opened in 1851. The tops of some old cylindrical stone memorials are sliced at an angle. This symbolises that the body was lost at sea.

Preaching about salvation, St. Peter Chrysologus (406 to 450) joyfully announced, “The world’s shipwreck is at an end.” He imagined not only individuals being fished out of the water, but also a broken ship miraculously able to float again. Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead (Revelation 1:5) and at the conclusion of human history, the sea and the underworld will give up the dead that are in them (Revelation 20:13). Preface IV for Easter says about Christ: “In him a new age had dawned, the long reign of sin is ended, a broken world has been restored and man is once again made whole.”

As Vatican II wrote in 1965: “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come” (Gaudium et Spes, n.39).

Today, people have become more concerned about protecting our land, sea and air.

John Paul II and China

Just six years after his death, Pope John Paul II (1920 to 2005) will be beatified on May 1. The date was not chosen because it is Labour Day. Rather, this year, the Second Sunday of Easter – now celebrated as Mercy Sunday at his own initiative – will fall on May 1.

The late pope was unable to visit China, but he mentioned that great nation, in passing, briefly or at length, in 75 of his speeches and writings during his 26 years as pope. He and Pope Paul VI had started to open the door to China and John Paul II tried to open it wider with limited success. The Christian message is for every race and nation; Catholics in every country can contribute to the peace and prosperity of their native land. John Paul II said in Manila on 18 February 1981, “There is therefore no opposition or incompatibility in being at the same time truly Christian and authentically Chinese.”

Too many overly nationalistic missionaries had tried to import the customs and outlook of their homeland into the Church in China over the centuries, thus provoking the reaction, “One more Christian, one less Chinese.” To view nationality and culture as gifts from God is to look at the human family from a different angle, a drastic shift from having the whole world revolve around western norms, one could even say a Copernican Revolution.

Copernicus and his revolutionary idea

Prior to Karol Wojtyla, perhaps the most famous Pole was Nicholas Copernicus (1473 to 1543). He was an authority in astronomy in 1514, when the Fifth Lateran Council consulted him about reforming the calendar. The civil calendar in use since the days of Julius Caesar had drifted out of sync with the seasons by nine or 10 days. This was causing confusion with holy days and farming alike. Copernicus humbly answered that it was still too early to replace the Julian calendar. More accurate measurements were needed. Pope Gregory XIII finally had the facts in 1572 to introduce a better solar calendar. Most of the world uses the Gregorian calendar today. Even Saudi Arabia uses it for international commerce.

Copernicus also reexamined the evidence for the earth being motionless in the centre of the universe and found it wanting. For a better explanation, Copernicus placed the sun in the centre, with earth as one of the orbiting planets.

Rumors of his theory disturbed people. A full presentation might threaten social harmony and even subvert the authority of those in power. So he waited until his final illness before sending his manuscript to a printer. He knew he was taking a gamble, like tossing his one and only die (plural: dice).

In March 1543, Copernicus finally held a copy of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in his hands. He said, “The die is cast, the book is written, to be read either now or by posterity. I do not care which. It can wait a century for a reader, as God has waited 5,000 years for an observer.”

At that time, educated Europeans considered the world to be over 5,000 years old, while scholars in the Great Ming (大明國) thought civilisation had begun along the banks of the Yellow River (黄河) 5,000 years earlier.

Today, the evidence strongly indicates that Chinese culture is considerably older than 5,000 years, while the universe is unimaginably older. This provokes a strong, even anti-scientific reaction from some Christian Fundamentalists, but not from the Vatican. There is therefore no opposition or incompatibility in being at the same time truly Catholic and being authentically at home in an immense and ancient universe.

A long or short future?

The first quarter of 2011 was full of bad news: uprisings and civil war, earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear radiation. Millions are afraid the world will end on 21 December 2012. Some groups hope the day will come even sooner, on this May 21. Perhaps they seriously underestimate God’s timetable.

On the contrary, Marxists believe that the human race is still in its infancy. We have thousands or even millions of glorious years ahead of us. Time will tell.

The Catholic Church has lived through enough disasters (some of them self-inflicted) not to panic at rumors of the End Times. We are not wildly optimistic about creating heaven on earth either. Whatever the future holds, we trust in the saving power of God. The Easter Vigil features the blessing the Easter Candle with the words, “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega. All time belongs to him and all the ages. To him be glory and power, through every age forever. Amen.”

Papal Documents Related to China, 1937-2005, was published in Hong Kong in 2006. We hope it will be openly available in the mainland within a century of its publication, by the year 2106, or even earlier. Time will tell.

Pray for smooth sailing

To use a medieval noun, which is spelled differently as a verb, the barque (boat) of Peter sails with the successor of Peter at the helm.

Catholics are all in the same boat, embarked on a voyage across the wavy sea of life to the safe harbour of heaven. There have been times when Christians in China and in other countries have had to close the portholes tightly and ride out a storm. Finally the time comes, as Pope John XXIII said on the eve of Vatican II, “to open the windows and let some fresh air into the Church.” While waiting for the gale to cease, we can look to the Risen Lord, the Divine Mercy of God, and say with Blessed Pope John Paul II, “Jesus I trust in you!”