Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The First Six Chinese Bishops of Modern Times: A Study in Church Indigenization

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The First Six Chinese Bishops of Modern Times: A Study in Church Indigenization

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

On October 28, 1926, when Pope Pius XI-in a singular ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica-consecrated the first six Chinese bishops of modem times, it was both a significant and auspicious event. It was significant because these men were the first native bishops of the Catholic Church in 250 years to be named not only for China but for all of East and Southeast Asia, consecrated by the hands of the pope himself in Rome, the very center of the Catholic world; and it was auspicious because it marked a new beginning for the indigenization of church leadership. The event thus marked a decisive turning point toward a Catholic Church that was no longer simply "Western," but truly universal in its leadership-a course of events that continues to this day.

Given the resistance at the time to admitting Chinese priests to the office of bishop, the six needed to be men of unimpeachable integrity and from families of deep faith, even from families that included martyrs among them. They also had to be able to bridge the gap between East and West, and so they were often conversant in Latin, Italian, and French, as well as various Chinese dialects. Thus the selection can be understood of Philip Zhao Huaiyi ...; Simon Zhu Kaimin, S.J. ... Joseph Hu Ruoshan, C.M. ...; Melchior Sun Dezhen, C.M. ...; Odoric Cheng Hede, O.F.M. ...; and Aloysius Chen Guodi, O.F.M. .... In making these six men bishops, Rome-despite protestations from different quarters-had spoken clearly. The age of local church leadership for the Asian churches was arriving.

Given this bold move, it can be argued that the Holy See was among the first European-based powers to devolve power to local leadership. Even so, two questions immediately arise. First, why did it take until 1926 for the Holy See to-once again-name local Chinese bishops?1 This fact is all the more interesting because the first Chinese bishop had been named some 250 years before. Yet, since then, no others had been named. Second, how did the Holy See overcome serious obstacles when it tried to fulfill its long-neglected policy of raising an indigenous hierarchy in China? This article seeks to answer these questions.

What makes this narrative especially compelling is the interplay-at times confrontational-between several major constituencies. Arguing the case for Chinese bishops were European missionaries who were sensitive to the nationalistic aspirations of many Chinese Christians. Arguing against church indigenization were other missionaries, mainly French, who aligned with the French consular authorities. Both of these groups sought to represent their respective points of view to the Holy See.

Historical Background

By the 1920s the Catholic Church in China found itself in a predicament. With the successive bursts of missionary activity from Europe beginning in the late-fifteenth century, membership in the non-European churches began to increase. The Church soon became a victim of its own success. One of the great ironies of this growth was that for a Church that called itself Catholic-universal-its leadership was still almost completely European. In fact, until 1926 when these six Chinese bishops were conse- crated, there was not a single native Latin-rite Catholic bishop in East and Southeast Asia.2 Thus, the consecration of these men as bishops marks the beginning of the indigenization of the Catholic hierarchy not only in China, but in much of Asia as well.

This state of affairs had not always been the case.3 Early in the China mission, there was a deliberate effort to begin to foster local leadership. In fact, the Chinese Dominican Gregory Luo Wenzao was made vicar apostolic of Nanjing (Nanking) in 1674. Eleven years later he was elevated to bishop.

Yet this auspicious beginning would not continue. In the intervening centuries there were a host of obstacles that stood in the way of developing a native episcopacy in East Asia. …

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