.
It appears that Pope Fancis and Chinese President Xi Jinping may be on the verge of accomplishing something historical—something that their respective predecessors have, for centuries, been unable to accomplish: forging formal diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Beijing. The Vatican now says it is making “relentless efforts to open communications lines with Beijing,” while the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that it is, for its part, also making “relentless efforts to that end.” Relations between Beijing and the Vatican have been frosty for decades. While China’s constitution allows for the freedom of religion, the Chinese Communist Party has long been suspicious of large religious organizations, which it fears could be hijacked for purposes of political opposition to the current regime. Suggestions that Pope John-Paul II helped to hasten the demise of communism in Eastern Europe have done little to assuage such fears. Nevertheless, Observers will tell you that the recent thawing of relations between Beijing and the Holy See should not come as a great surprise. After all, Pope Francis is a Jesuit—and what other Western group, historically, has better understood China than the Jesuits? The Jesuits were the first to publish detailed accounts of China and its culture in Europe, and also the first to translate the primary books of Chinese literature and philosophy into Western languages, bringing the Western world to a better understanding of that mysterious, faraway and fascinating empire. When the Jesuit order or the “Society of Jesus” was formed in 1534, Jesuit missionaries quickly set out to convert the Eastern world.  At the instigation of the Society’s founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and Pope John III, Jesuit missionary Francisco Xavier travelled to the far East. Xavier embarked from Lisbon in 1540 and travelled ten years on a course from Mozambique to India, Malacca and Japan.  From there he fixed his sights on China, at the time the mightiest empire of the East.  Although he never gained access to China’s mainland, dying instead in 1552 on the small island of Shangchuan (“St John’s Island”) just off China’s coast, his dream of converting China inspired generations of subsequent missionaries.  After him, Alessandro Valignano, an Italian Jesuit appointed Visitor-General to the Indies in 1573, proposed a new approach commensurate with the methods advocated by Ignatius.  He believed the Jesuits could succeed in China by learning Chinese and accommodating or adapting to Chinese culture.  While laid over at Macao on his way to Japan in 1578, he conceived a strategy to propagate Christianity in China from the top down by reaching out first to China’s Confucian scholar-gentry. The first Jesuit to make significant progress was Matteo Ricci, who gained access to the Chinese mainland and lived there for nearly 30 years.  Ricci began in Canton and worked his way north to Peking (present-day Beijing) by 1598.  A man of inexhaustible patience and curiosity for things Chinese, Ricci adopted the attire of the Chinese literati, became conversant in the Chinese Classics, wrote in Chinese, and displayed an openness to Chinese values and customs.  His knowledge of Western astronomy, mathematics, geography, and other scientific achievements won the friendship of the more open-minded Chinese scholars and officials.  He spent the last ten years of his life at Peking, translating Confucian texts into Latin for the first time. The Jesuits were able to create what the Chinese Foreign ministry today would describe as a “win-win” relationship, although the Vatican at the time never succeeded in establishing formal relations with Beijing. If successful, the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Beijing today will no doubt go down in history as one of the first great diplomatic accomplishments of the 21st century and a major milestone in the the histories of both the Vatican and the Jesuit order. The Chinese Foreign Ministry says: “We would like to open communication lines between the two sides and work together with the Vatican to press ahead with the improvement of relations.” Relations between the two have remained frosty for decades, ever since the communists came to power in 1949 and expelled Vatican envoy Antonio Riberi from Beijing in 1951, after a catholic priest was implicated in a plot to assassinate Mao Zedong—the priest was discovered to be in possession of a 1930s-era mortar, which he claimed he kept as an antique for display purposes. Since then, Beijing has been nervous about permitting outside Papal authority over the churches and Christian community in China. The Republic of China (the ROC or “Taiwan”) however, has maintained diplomatic relations with the Vatican. In fact, the Vatican is the only European sovereign to maintain an embassy in Taiwan, which continues to raise the ire of the Communist Party, for even the United Nations recognizes Beijing as the legitimate seat of the government of China. Meanwhile, the Holy See is the only Western State not to have established diplomatic ties with Beijing. The PRC’s Foreign Ministry says: “We would like to open communication lines between the two sides and work together with the Vatican to press ahead with the improvement of Relations.” It further said: “We also hope that the Vatican will take flexible and practical attitude to create favorable conditions to improve the relationship,” Looking back over the Jesuits’ policy of accommodation in China, one cannot but feel optimistic that the Vatican, under a Jesuit, will be able to deliver such conditions. Christianity has been growing quickly in China. Unofficial estimates reckon that mainland China has over 65 million Christians including Catholics, Protestants, and other Christian denominations. Beijing insists that the appointment of Catholic Bishops in China should rest with the Chinese government and not with the Vatican. So far, Beijing has appointed eight Catholic bishops in China without the Vatican’s approval. The Vatican indicates it is ready to pardon these priests. Meanwhile, Beijing now seems to recognize the possibility that by allowing Christianity to grow deeper roots in China, it may be able to further facilitate internal social cohesion and stability, while at the same time improve its image abroad.   Photo: Pope Francis in St Peter's square – Vatican By Alfred Borba, through Wikimedia Commons.

About
Paul Nash
:
Toronto-based Correspondent Paul Nash is a frequent China commentator and serves as a Senior Contributing Editor at Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Beijing and The Vatican: Centuries-Old Acquaintances Aim to Forge New Relationship

July 21, 2016

It appears that Pope Fancis and Chinese President Xi Jinping may be on the verge of accomplishing something historical—something that their respective predecessors have, for centuries, been unable to accomplish: forging formal diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Beijing. The Vatican now says it is making “relentless efforts to open communications lines with Beijing,” while the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that it is, for its part, also making “relentless efforts to that end.” Relations between Beijing and the Vatican have been frosty for decades. While China’s constitution allows for the freedom of religion, the Chinese Communist Party has long been suspicious of large religious organizations, which it fears could be hijacked for purposes of political opposition to the current regime. Suggestions that Pope John-Paul II helped to hasten the demise of communism in Eastern Europe have done little to assuage such fears. Nevertheless, Observers will tell you that the recent thawing of relations between Beijing and the Holy See should not come as a great surprise. After all, Pope Francis is a Jesuit—and what other Western group, historically, has better understood China than the Jesuits? The Jesuits were the first to publish detailed accounts of China and its culture in Europe, and also the first to translate the primary books of Chinese literature and philosophy into Western languages, bringing the Western world to a better understanding of that mysterious, faraway and fascinating empire. When the Jesuit order or the “Society of Jesus” was formed in 1534, Jesuit missionaries quickly set out to convert the Eastern world.  At the instigation of the Society’s founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and Pope John III, Jesuit missionary Francisco Xavier travelled to the far East. Xavier embarked from Lisbon in 1540 and travelled ten years on a course from Mozambique to India, Malacca and Japan.  From there he fixed his sights on China, at the time the mightiest empire of the East.  Although he never gained access to China’s mainland, dying instead in 1552 on the small island of Shangchuan (“St John’s Island”) just off China’s coast, his dream of converting China inspired generations of subsequent missionaries.  After him, Alessandro Valignano, an Italian Jesuit appointed Visitor-General to the Indies in 1573, proposed a new approach commensurate with the methods advocated by Ignatius.  He believed the Jesuits could succeed in China by learning Chinese and accommodating or adapting to Chinese culture.  While laid over at Macao on his way to Japan in 1578, he conceived a strategy to propagate Christianity in China from the top down by reaching out first to China’s Confucian scholar-gentry. The first Jesuit to make significant progress was Matteo Ricci, who gained access to the Chinese mainland and lived there for nearly 30 years.  Ricci began in Canton and worked his way north to Peking (present-day Beijing) by 1598.  A man of inexhaustible patience and curiosity for things Chinese, Ricci adopted the attire of the Chinese literati, became conversant in the Chinese Classics, wrote in Chinese, and displayed an openness to Chinese values and customs.  His knowledge of Western astronomy, mathematics, geography, and other scientific achievements won the friendship of the more open-minded Chinese scholars and officials.  He spent the last ten years of his life at Peking, translating Confucian texts into Latin for the first time. The Jesuits were able to create what the Chinese Foreign ministry today would describe as a “win-win” relationship, although the Vatican at the time never succeeded in establishing formal relations with Beijing. If successful, the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Beijing today will no doubt go down in history as one of the first great diplomatic accomplishments of the 21st century and a major milestone in the the histories of both the Vatican and the Jesuit order. The Chinese Foreign Ministry says: “We would like to open communication lines between the two sides and work together with the Vatican to press ahead with the improvement of relations.” Relations between the two have remained frosty for decades, ever since the communists came to power in 1949 and expelled Vatican envoy Antonio Riberi from Beijing in 1951, after a catholic priest was implicated in a plot to assassinate Mao Zedong—the priest was discovered to be in possession of a 1930s-era mortar, which he claimed he kept as an antique for display purposes. Since then, Beijing has been nervous about permitting outside Papal authority over the churches and Christian community in China. The Republic of China (the ROC or “Taiwan”) however, has maintained diplomatic relations with the Vatican. In fact, the Vatican is the only European sovereign to maintain an embassy in Taiwan, which continues to raise the ire of the Communist Party, for even the United Nations recognizes Beijing as the legitimate seat of the government of China. Meanwhile, the Holy See is the only Western State not to have established diplomatic ties with Beijing. The PRC’s Foreign Ministry says: “We would like to open communication lines between the two sides and work together with the Vatican to press ahead with the improvement of Relations.” It further said: “We also hope that the Vatican will take flexible and practical attitude to create favorable conditions to improve the relationship,” Looking back over the Jesuits’ policy of accommodation in China, one cannot but feel optimistic that the Vatican, under a Jesuit, will be able to deliver such conditions. Christianity has been growing quickly in China. Unofficial estimates reckon that mainland China has over 65 million Christians including Catholics, Protestants, and other Christian denominations. Beijing insists that the appointment of Catholic Bishops in China should rest with the Chinese government and not with the Vatican. So far, Beijing has appointed eight Catholic bishops in China without the Vatican’s approval. The Vatican indicates it is ready to pardon these priests. Meanwhile, Beijing now seems to recognize the possibility that by allowing Christianity to grow deeper roots in China, it may be able to further facilitate internal social cohesion and stability, while at the same time improve its image abroad.   Photo: Pope Francis in St Peter's square – Vatican By Alfred Borba, through Wikimedia Commons.

About
Paul Nash
:
Toronto-based Correspondent Paul Nash is a frequent China commentator and serves as a Senior Contributing Editor at Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.