ROME – At a high-profile conference in Rome this week, top Vatican officials reaffirmed that the Church does not pose a threat to China’s sovereignty and acknowledged that foreign missionaries made past “errors” in evangelization, while also stressing the importance of unity with Rome.

Likewise, members of China’s state-backed Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) lamented what they said was a “colonialist” mentality among western foreign missionaries in the past who, they said, had a sense of “superiority” and attempted to erase Chinese culture, refusing to involve local clergy in leadership.

The conference held Tuesday and titled, “100 years since the Concilium Sinense: Between history and present,” commemorated the centenary of the 1924 Council of Shanghai and marked an unprecedented coming together of top officials from the Vatican and mainland China.

Not only did Pope Francis send a video message to the event, but Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Filippino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization’s Section for First Evangelization and New Particular Churches, also gave keynote speeches.

They spoke alongside secretary general of the CPCA, Tao Lizhu, and Bishop Shen Bin of Shanghai, president of the CPCA, and who was appointed without the pope’s authorization last spring. Francis in July 2023 accepted the appointment, even though it violated a 2018 deal on the appointment of bishops.

In his video message, Pope Francis said the Council of Shanghai was a successful exercise in synodality and “opened up new paths, so that the Catholic Church in China could also increasingly have a Chinese face.”

Quoting Archbishop Celso Costantini, who served as the pope’s apostolic delegate to China from 1922 until his departure in 1933, the pope said the Church’s mission was to “evangelize, not colonize,” and that the Shanghai council helped better relations between China and the Holy See.

The council, he said, “did not only serve to forget the erroneous approaches that had prevailed in previous times,” but participants identified “paths that best conformed to the nature of the Church and her mission.

Participants, he said, “looked to the future. And their future is our present.”

Francis’s reference to past errors was a reference to the foreign missionaries, most of whom were from France, Italy, or other western missionary orders, who came to China but refused to cede leadership of missions and ecclesial communities to local clergy.

This attitude fueled the already brewing intense anti-western and anti-Catholic sentiment among the Chinese population that sparked the Boxer Rebellion, which sought to rid China of foreign influences, especially those in the west.

Pope Francis in his message offered assurances to China about the Church’s benefit to society and underlined the importance of union with Rome, saying “Chinese Catholics, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, walk in the present time.”

“In the context in which they live, they also bear witness to their faith through works of mercy and charity, and in their witness they give a real contribution to the harmony of social coexistence, to the building of the common home,” he said.

In his speech, Shen Bin, speaking through an interpreter, lamented the “superior” attitude of these Western missionaries, saying they worked to “protect foreign powers” through “unequal treaties” China signed with various European nations, and enjoyed special privileges because of it, giving Catholicism the designation as a “foreign religion.”

He decried what he said were past attempts at “cultural colonization,” the monopolization of churches, and the discrimination against local clergy, with “deep-rooted prejudices towards traditional Chinese culture and political and social reality.”

Shen Bin lauded Costantini’s attempts to promote the inculturation of the faith in China, as well as the Council of Shanghai’s insistence on the need to facilitate an indigenous clergy and episcopate. As a result, the first six native Chinese bishops were ordained in Rome in 1926.

Looking to the future, Shen Bin said Catholicism in China today must be faithful to the Gospel, and adaptable to the local political reality.

Alluding to religious freedom concerns amid China’s historic crackdown on religion, Shen Bin said the government “has no interest in changing the Catholic faith, but only hopes that the Catholic clergy and faithful will defend the interests of the Chinese people and free themselves from the control of foreign powers.”

In the future, the Church in China must go forward following “the Chinese perspective,” and it must be in line with modern developments in China.

“Today the Chinese people are carrying out the great rebirth of the Chinese nation in a global way with Chinese-style modernization, and the Catholic Church in China must move in the same direction, following a path of ‘Chinese-ization’ that is in line with Chinese society and culture today,” he said.

Shen Bin invited Chinese clergy and faithful “to love their country and their Church,” repeating Pope Francis’s insistence that “being a good Christian is not only not incompatible with being a good citizen, but is an integral part of it.”

He also insisted that the Church in China must immerse itself in the “excellent traditional Chinese culture,” especially in the promotion of an indigenous clergy, Chinese architecture, art and music, as well as the liturgy.

Similarly, Tan Lizhu, professor at the Center for Studies on Catholic Theology and secretary general of the CPCA, also underlined the importance of the inculturation of the faith, saying, “Without a mature local Church, there can be no universality of the Church.”

He pointed to the historical context in which the Council of Shanghai took place, saying, it both “answered the call and responded to the needs of the times. It was a prophetic work, not easy to achieve” given the societal sentiment at the time.

Even after the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church in China was involved in movements of change, he said, saying the Church “is always on a journey of learning, not for the sake of knowledge, but with a humble heart.”

Lizhu also spoke of the need for a “Chineseization” of Catholicism in China, saying, “The universal nature of the Church has a residue that is within the local Church.”

“It is not a question of inserting Chinese content into the Catholic Church, it must not be a process of this type, but it must be one of mutual enrichment,” he said.

Relations between the Vatican and China have been strained since the Communist Party came to power over 70 years ago, with the country’s roughly 12 million Catholics divided into an official state-run Church, the CPCA, and an underground Church loyal to Rome.

The Vatican has long sought to repair relations, most recently with a controversial 2018 provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops – a power China has claimed on grounds of national sovereignty, with the Vatican insisting it is the pope’s exclusive right as head of the universal Church.

That deal, which has twice been renewed, despite repeated violations by Chinese authorities, and it is expected to be renewed for a third time this year, according to Parolin, who told journalists Tuesday that it will likely be renewed this fall, and “developed in some points.”

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Parolin, who was a key architect of the 2018 agreement, in his remarks during the conference Tuesday focused on the role of Costantini, admitting past mistakes, but also stressing the importance of direct and open dialogue between Chinese authorities and the Holy See.

He owned up to the errors of foreign missionaries in their alignment to the patronage of western powers and refusal to relinquish leadership, but said they contributed to the social development of China and its people “with a sense of true charity and dedication.”

Quoting Costantini, he stressed the need to pass from foreign missions to building a “missionary Church” in China with an authentic inculturation of the faith.

This cannot happen, he said, without “the direct dialogue…between the Holy See and the authorities of the country.”

Parolin underlined the role of the pope as guaranteeing that the faith is not instrumentalized by any nation or culture, saying communion between the local Church and Rome is “the best guarantee of a faith that is subtracted from foreign political interests and is rooted firmly in the local culture and society.”

“Obedience to the pope not only doesn’t harm the love that one owes one’s country, but purifies it and renews it,” he said.

Likewise, Tagle, who is part Chinese, in his closing keynote address touted the Council of Shanghai as example of synodality as “a constitutive and indispensable dimension of the life of the Church,” and as a point of reference for the future.

In any nation, he said, the Gospel must be announced “without instruments of political, social, or cultural pressure to impose one’s hegemony and relevance.”

He also admitted to past mistakes on the part of foreign missionaries, pointing to what he said was a confusion between “missionary works and colonialist strategies of the Western powers” that ultimately “damaged the mission.”

The Council of Shanghai, he said, helped distinguish the Gospel from cultural influences, while also acknowledging the need to respect and appreciate the culture of different nations and peoples.

“Today, when geographic distances between peoples have become relativized, this orientation criterion is called upon to deal with new developments, such as those of the so-called ‘hybridization of cultures,’” he said, saying cultural, social, ethnic and religious affiliations should never become “the seedbed of atrocious conflicts.”

Cultural traditions, he said, must not “close in on themselves,” but must remain open to exchange and encounter “for the benefit of the entire population, and not just qualified elites.”

In China, the goal, he said, is “to create a Chinese and missionary Church. A Church that lives its own physiognomy and indigenous identity not as a retreat or self-referential closure, but always in openness to the universal Church and to other local Churches.”

This openness must always be “guarded and guaranteed in communion with the Bishop of Rome,” he said, but added that the announcement of the Gospel must “reach the people and communities speaking their ‘maternal language.’”

Referring to Costantini, Tagle voiced his belief that he and other participants in the Council of Shanghai “would be happy to recognize that today the community of baptized Catholics in China is fully Catholic and fully Chinese.”

“There can be problems, misunderstandings, accidents, but there is never lukewarmness or indifference toward the path of the Catholic Church in China,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen