by Jonathan Petre
HOPES FOR a reconciliation between the Holy See and the
Chinese communist authorities were raised last week by an article which appeared in Chinese daily newspaper praising three 17thcentury Jesuit missionaries.
Pope John Paul has designated March 21 a day of special prayer for the Christian communities of China.
An article, carried by the English language paper, China Daily, published in Beijing, said that the three priests, "once disparaged as carriers of an imperialistic culture', during the Cultural Revolution, are now recognised as men who made a contribution to China by spreading the understanding of Western science."
The article is seen to be significant in the light of comments made by Pope John Paul II to Jesuit leaders on February 27, in high he said the Society of Jesus hoped to resume its once "privileged" place as evangelisers of China.
The Pope also recently asked Chinese authorities to respect religious liberty and reminded Chinese Catholics for the need to maintain links with Rome. This call came in a letter written for the Chinese New Year, asking all Catholic bishops to pray for China. On March 21, the Pope will celebrate Mass in Rome for the Christians of China.
The letter was the Pope's third public message to the Chinese, and reinforces his statement from Manila in 1981. At that time relations seemed good, but when the Vatican nominated the Jesuit Bishop Dominic Tang as Archbishop of Canton in June last year, Chinese authorities refused to let him enter the country.
And, in November, three Jesuits and a priest were arrested in Shanghai. having been accused of maintaining links with Rome and refusing to enter the government controlled Patriotic Catholics Association.
In his letter, the Pope reassured the Chinese authorities that the Church has no wish for hegemony in the country, but nevertheless felt it necessary that Chinese Catholics should be allowed the help and understanding of the Church of Rome if it was needed.
The Pope went on to praise the resilience of Catholics in China who have "had to face difficult and prolonged trials in the span of these thirty years."
In an indirect appeal to the Chinese authorities, the Pope called for freedom and unity: "For some time now, the demands of religious freedom have found greater understanding in that great country.
"It is necessary, therefore, to beg Almighty God, the Lord of nations, that, in application of the principles of this freedom, our brothers and sisters in China may be able to live their faith without impediments, remaining in the catholic unity of the Church."
The three priests praised in the article in China Daily were Father Matteo Ricci, an Italian mathematician, Fr Johann Adam Schall, a German astronomer, and Fr Ferdinandus Verbiest, a Belgian astronomer.
In his speech to Jesuit leaders, the Pope said: "Among the many Jesuit missionaries, I wish to name one because his memory is today of particular topicality: Fr Matteo Ricci, of whom we are about to celebrate the fourth centenary of his entrance into China, that great country which was the dream of St Francis Xavier, who had died 30 years earlier on the island of Sancian, at the doors of that China which was and wants to return to bring a privileged field of apostolate for the society."