Executive Intelligence Review
This article appears in the November 9, 2001 issue of Executive Intelligence Review.

John Paul II Praises Matteo Ricci
in Quest For Dialogue with China

by Elisabeth Hellenbroich

[PDF version of this article]

On Oct. 24-25, an international conference took place at the Gregorian University in Rome, under the title "Matteo Ricci: For A Dialogue Between China And The West." The conference, which gathered experts from Italy and China, as well as political and Catholic Church representatives, was organized by the Italy-China Institute of Milan, to commemorate the fourth centenary of the arrival in Beijing of Father Matteo Ricci (1552-1610).

A truly historic message was transmitted to the conference by Pope John Paul II, and read by the president of the institute, Cesare Romiti. The speech (published in full below) was a passionate plea for a "dialogue of cultures and religions," the foundation for a "civilization based on peace and love."

In what must be considered an historic breakthrough, the Pope asked for forgiveness for the errors which the Catholic Church had committed in the past. Making indirect reference to the famous "Rites Controversy" (see article in this section), and in particular to the 19th Century, when Catholic missionaries often allied with the colonial powers, the Pope expressed his "deep sadness for these errors and limits of the past" and expressed his "regret that in many people, these failings may have given the impression of a lack of respect and esteem for the Chinese people on the part of the Catholic Church, making them feel that the Church was motivated by feelings of hostility towards China." He asked for the "forgiveness" and "understanding of those who may have felt hurt by such action on the part of Christians."

In his speech, the Pope stressed the groundbreaking missionary and scientific work of Father Ricci, which he presented as a model for a truly successful dialogue among cultures. In his passionate portrait of Father Ricci, the Pope pointed out that the Jesuit father, with his famous monograph Expédition Chrétiennne au Royaume de la Chine (Christian Expedition To The Chinese Kingdom, published posthumously), was the missionary and Sinologist who gave Europe its first profound insight into the culture, philosophy, history, and geography of China.

Given the current global crisis, and in view of the fact that China and the Catholic Church are two of mankind's most "ancient institutions," representing more than 1 billion people, the Pope expressed his profound hope that the Vatican and the People's Republic of China will resume diplomatic relations, and said that this "would have undoubtedly positive repercussions for humanity's progress."

The Pope expressed his "sympathy" for the Chinese people and his respect for "the significant advances made by China in recent times in the social economic and educational spheres." The Chinese people, especially in more recent times, have set themselves important objectives in the field of social progress, the Pope said.

He spoke of the benefit for the "whole human family," which the "opening of some form of dialogue with the authorities of the People's Republic of China would have." Once the misunderstandings of the past have been overcome, such "a dialogue would make it possible for us to work together for the good of the Chinese people and for peace in the world."

During the conference, some speakers (such as Prof. Ren Yan Li) mentioned that during the past 50 years, during which official relations between the Vatican and the P.R.C. have been at a standstill, Pope John Paul II, following in the footsteps of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, was the most passionate to "encourage reconciliation and unity among Chinese Catholics" and who began a new epoch of opening relations. An example cited of the new climate, is the fact that there are various centers for research on Christianity at Chinese universities, often linked to the philosophy departments. (Among these are the Center of Christian Studies at the University of Zhejang in Hangzhou, founded in 1991, and the Center for Religious and Christian Research at the University of Beijing, founded in 1996.)

In a first official reaction, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi hailed the Pope's speech as a "positive signal," saying that China is willing to improve relations with the Vatican, if the Vatican terminates "diplomatic relations with Taiwan" and admits that the government of the P.R.C. is the sole legal government representing the whole of China, and that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China's territory. The Vatican should furthermore promise that it will not interfere in China's internal affairs, including not interfering in China's internal affairs under the guise of religious activities.

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