People, Communities, and the Catholic Church in China edited by Cindy Yik-yi Chu and Paul P. Mariani

In: International Journal of Asian Christianity
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee Professor of History at Pace University, New York City, NY, USA

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(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), pp. xix + 157, US$119.99, isbn 978-981-15-1678-8.

In this timely, informative, and insightful essay collection, Cindy Yik-yi Chu and Paul P. Mariani have brought together a team of experts to provide an up-to-date account of the Catholic Church in China. Composed of nine chapters, the collection begins with a concise introductory essay by Cindy Yik-yi Chu, exploring the thematic categories of Catholic worshippers, church leaders, ecclesiastical institutions, and grassroots communities as analytical windows onto larger political, sociocultural, and religious issues that impact the trajectory of the Chinese Church.

The first two chapters, in part one, contextualize Church-state relations from the 1980s to the present. Gianni Criveller evaluates the evolution of state-sanctioned patriotic churches since 1978, showing how different generations of the patriotic ecclesiastical leadership have coped with “the mounting degree of unwarranted control, manipulation, harassment, and even suppression” by the national, provincial and municipal authorities while maintaining informal channels of communication with the underground Catholics (p. 22). As Chinese President Xi Jinping sets out to pursue bilateral relations with the Vatican, patriotic church leaders are now positioning themselves as credible mediators with the Holy See. Shifting the focus of attention to underground Catholics, Sergio Ticozzi traces their tactics to maintain ecclesiastical independence from the Chinese state. Besides running seminaries and ordaining clergy, they launched in November 1989 (p. 38) the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China to rival the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. However, since Pope Francis offered an olive branch to Xi by signing the secretive Sino-Vatican Provisional Agreement on September 22, 2018, underground Catholics have come under pressure to reconcile with the patriotic leadership, and accept state supervision.

Part two looks at two opposing patterns in Church-state relationships. Rachel Xiaohong Zhu revisits the legacy of the late Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian (1916–2013), who spent eighteen years in jail during the reign of Mao Zedong, and who, upon release from prison, rose to preside over the Catholic Patriotic Association of Shanghai. Zhu praises Bishop Jin’s capability to navigate fluid political contexts. Beatrice K. F. Leung explores the extraordinary role of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun in Hong Kong. Despite being criticized by Beijing as politically subversive, Cardinal Zen’s commitment to peace and justice has energized the local democratic struggle. Faced with the growing trend of authoritarianism in postcolonial Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen has mobilized Catholics to oppose the pro-Beijing dictatorial government. He participated in the Occupy Central with Love and Peace Campaign in 2014, and joined the months-long pro-democracy protests in late 2019. Disheartened by the Vatican’s appeasement of China since 2018, he has utilized his networks to reach out to human rights organizations and Western parliamentary governments on behalf of the persecuted underground churches.

The clerical leadership does not represent the totality of the Church. Part three takes a closer look at the spiritual resources that sustain the Chinese faithful. As 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Mandarin-Chinese Union Version of the Bible for Protestants, one should acknowledge similar efforts to translate the Chinese Catholic one. According to Raissa De Gruttola, the production of the first comprehensive version of the Chinese Catholic Bible in 1968 was a successful partnership between missionaries and native clergy to make the Scriptures easily accessible to the Chinese world. Zhipeng Zhang investigates the state-approved Catholic-run Jinde Charities Foundation in Hebei Province. These Catholics have established an impressive network of welfare institutions to look after abandoned infants and lepers, and to support disaster relief efforts. It would be easier for readers to understand these charities if Zhang could include some testimonies of welfare recipients.

Part four draws on examples of youth groups and pilgrims to examine the dynamics of Catholic grassroots communities. Bruno Lepeu outlines the youth ministry in urban China. Because today’s Catholics are keen to enrich their spirituality, the localization of youth ministry is essential for the Church’s renewal. Paul P. Mariani gives an in-depth look at the Catholic pilgrimage to Shanghai’s Sheshan. Many urban Catholics worry about official hostility towards public religious activities, but rural pilgrims still flock to this sacred site on special occasions.

Varying in scope, these case studies explore how Chinese clergy and laity have empowered their communities in urban and rural settings. By studying influential personalities, hierarchical church institution, and horizontal networks, the contributors have balanced the organizational analysis of Catholicism with a sociocultural portrayal of the Chinese faithful. Intense interactions among these religious actors have permitted a high degree of accommodation, without domination or victimization.

In short, the editors and contributors have done a great job highlighting major historical, political, social, and cultural trends that are shaping Church-state relations and Vatican-China encounters. Their rich empirical findings and analytical insights should appeal to China scholars, church historians, and religious specialists.

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