These articles are intended to present a very particular reality, which plays a determining role in the life of the Catholics in China, either by conscripting them under the banner of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or by casting them back into the catacombs. The article has been published on the website of the Foreign Missions of Paris. This presentation will allow the uninformed reader to understand what are the stakes of the agreement between China and the Vatican, which should be renewed in October.
40 years after the founding of the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, it is possible to make a more complete assessment of the events that marked this era and to decipher the design and the objectives that the leaders of the CCP had set themselves and that they intended to achieve through its creation.
The Catholic Church on the Eve of “Liberation”
A quick glance at the reality of the Catholic Church in China on the eve of the communist “liberation” at the end of the 1940s will help to better situate the events described and to understand their significance.
On April 11, 1946, Pope Pius XII, by erecting the Catholic hierarchy on the Chinese continent, accomplished a historic gesture. The pope's act was the culmination of difficult stages and overcame obstacles from political circles that had an interest in maintaining some degree of supervision over the Church, as well as from certain ecclesiastical circles that feared losing the privileges of their congregations.
The Holy See thus decided to override these entrenched positions, practically repeating the gesture made in the early 1920s when it sent its own apostolic delegate to China despite strong resistance.
Since the Apostolic Constitution Quotidie Nos and the successive interventions of the Apostolic See, the Church in China, in 1949, was divided into 20 ecclesiastical provinces, with 20 archbishops, 83 bishops, and 35 apostolic prefects. To this would be added the sees of Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, not included in these figures.
Among these, there were 266 Chinese Ordinaries. Sixteen dioceses and seven apostolic prefectures were entrusted to the secular clergy, while three dioceses were entrusted to Chinese members of religious congregations.
These figures lead to another consideration. Pius XII’s act, although providential, came a little late. The Church had been slow in its evolution towards more indigenization, due to a wide range of reasons which are not pertinent to this discussion.
Bishop Antonio Riberi, an internuncio, resided in Nanking. He was the third in the series, after Celso Costantini (1922-1933) and Mario Zanin. The apostolic delegation became an internunciature in July 1946.
Catholics numbered over three million, with nearly 200,000 catechumens, served by 5,788 priests (2,698 of whom were Chinese) and 7,463 sister (5,112 of whom were Chinese). There were 924 philosophy and theology students preparing for the priesthood in the 17 major seminaries, and more than 3,000 seminarians in formation in the minor seminaries.
26 orders or congregations were entrusted with mission territories, while 13 other male societies provided assistance in the various districts without being attached to a particular territory. There were 60 female congregations working in China.
The catechists, men and women, numbered in the hundreds. More than a thousand “virgins,” women who made no particular vows, who dedicated their lives to the service of the Church. More than 320,000 young people were studying in the 4,446 schools, large and small. There were also three Catholic universities (Aurora of Shanghai, Fu Jen of Beijing, and Tinku of Tianjin).
The Church also ran 254 orphanages, 216 health institutions (many nursing homes and hospitals), and 781 dispensaries, as well as boarding schools. There were also several Catholic printing presses and numerous publications.