CHINA-VATICAN 100 years have passed since the arrival of Mons. Celso Costantini to Beijing

Milan () – Today marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival of mons. Celso Costantini to Beijing. The Italian archbishop was the first apostolic delegate in China. Fr Gianni Criveller, PIME missionary and sinologist, traces the legacy of this fundamental figure of contemporary Catholicism who, along with Matteo Ricci, continues to inspire respect and gratitude among Catholics in China.

The year 1922 marked a milestone in the life of Celso Costantini, the first Apostolic Delegate in China. It was an important year for the Chinese Catholic Church since, thanks to Costantini, the reform promoted by the magna chart of the modern mission: the Maximum Illud (1919) by Benedict XV. Costantini’s objectives were the promotion of the indigenous clergy, the work of inculturation and the process of emancipation from the patronage of France and other European powers.

On December 29, 1922, exactly one hundred years ago, Archbishop Celso Costantini arrived in Beijing, the capital of the Republic of China, as the Chinese nation was then called. The Republic of China currently exists on the island of Taiwan, with which the Holy See maintains formal diplomatic relations, established 80 years ago, on October 23, 1942, and commemorated with significant acts by the Embassy of China (Taiwan) to the Holy See.

On December 29, 1922, exactly one hundred years ago, Archbishop Celso Costantini arrived in Beijing, the capital of the Republic of China, as the Chinese nation was then called. Today, the ROC is located on the island of Taiwan, with which the Holy See has maintained formal diplomatic relations for 80 years. Ties between the two states began on October 23, 1942, a date that the Chinese (Taiwan) embassy to the Holy See commemorates with significant events.

Today Taiwan is home to some of the most precious works in the legacy of Costantini, whose Chinese name is Gang Hengyi (剛恆毅). One of them is the Fu Jen Catholic University, founded in Beijing in 1925 with the patronage of Costantini, and which today operates in Taipei. Within the university, Costantini promoted the creation of a school for the promotion of Chinese Christian art. It was a true revolution for the visual imagination of Chinese Catholics: finally, the portraits of the sacred figures of Jesus, Mary, the Holy Family and others acquired Chinese features, to the greater joy and devotion of the faithful. Luke Chen, who had an intense collaboration with Costantini, was the most significant artist in this artistic movement.

Today the congregation of the Disciples of the Lord also continues to function (Disciple Domine), founded by Constantini in May 1931 so that Chinese priests and religious could be trained in the culture of their country, for a more effective work of evangelization.

Let’s go back to December 29, 1922, when Costantini arrived in the capital. “I arrived in Beijing around 11 p.m. In the darkness of the immense city I could only glimpse the shadow of the great walls: black, tall, gigantic, topped by great square defense towers, they rose into the night with their battlements, like a towering ghost of the great past”. Later, Costantini referred to the fascination exerted by Beijing, writing: “Beijing is the Rome of the Far East. Like Rome, it radiated the humanitas America to Europe, Beijing radiated the humanitas China, Korea, Japan and Indochina… Beijing’s fascination lies in its ultra-millennial history and its monuments, which are a reflection of that history… It has the most beautiful walls in the world”[1].

It is not difficult to imagine Costantini’s emotion, and his acute awareness of the importance of the historic mission entrusted to him. Anyone who has been to Beijing and lived there knows this feeling. For a missionary living in China, setting foot in Beijing is a point of arrival and a milestone at the same time. The life of Matteo Ricci, whom Pope Francis declared Venerable on December 17, is “an ascent to Beijing.” The Macerata missionary arrived there in January 1601, after several stopovers, after 18 years of an arduous missionary journey that began in Macao. It was precisely Costantini who inherited Ricci’s baton, rehabilitating his memory and following in his footsteps in terms of inculturation, promotion of the local Church and liberation from colonial politics. It was Costantini who, upon his return to Rome to hold a high position in the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, inspired the radical turn of the Vatican on the question of the Chinese Rites (1939). It is no coincidence that Costantini visited Matteo Ricci’s grave on January 1, 1923, a few days after his arrival.

When he arrived in China, Costantini was a 46-year-old bishop. His native land was Castions di Zoppola, belonging to the diocese of Concordia, in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. As a priest, he had distinguished himself by his generous help to the tormented population during World War I. In 1920, Benedict XV named him apostolic administrator of Rijeka, a border town that became the center of a conflict between Italians and Croats. He handled the difficult situation shrewdly and was elected bishop the following year. The Holy See appreciated Costantini’s qualities for unraveling delicate situations.

On June 11, 1922 Costantini received a letter from Rome: in it they informed him that the new Pope, Pius XI, wanted to send him to China as apostolic delegate. Constantini argued that he lacked the necessary sinological or diplomatic training, and that there was no reason to justify such a decision. But Rome had already made the decision and everything would be kept secret. The reaction of France, at that time holder of the protectorate over the Catholic missions, was feared. Indeed, just 36 years earlier, in 1886, France had managed to get Pope Leo XIII to retract a decision already made: the establishment of diplomatic relations with China and the sending of a nuncio to Beijing.

Costantini only had a few weeks to prepare for his new task. Everything happened quickly: the papal decree of appointment took place on August 9; the creation of the papal delegation in China and his elevation to archbishop was on August 12; he made a brief trip to France, strictly incognito, to improve his French. On September 22 he left, from Venice. After his passage through the Suez Canal, Sri Lanka and Singapore, in a few weeks Costantini arrived (unexpectedly) in Hong Kong, his first port of call (on November 8, 1922).

Back then, the Catholic mission in the British colony was led by the missionaries of the Foreign Missions of Milan (today, PIME). At the head of the Apostolic Vicariate was the Lombard bishop Domenico Pozzoni, who had been a student of Achille Ratti, that is, of Pius XI. The Pope himself had suggested to Constantini that he speak with Bishop Pozzoni on all matters relating to China. Pius XI considered that the bishop of Hong Kong would share the need for reform, the purpose of the mission that Costantini could finally reveal publicly. He wrote in his diary: “The Holy See does not play politics and has no imperialist goals in China. The policy of foreign powers is not its business. The Holy Father loves China and sincerely wishes it well. China, for the Chinese “[2].

Costantini stayed in Hong Kong for about a month, during which he received the painful news of the death of his beloved mother. He would return to Hong Kong on June 13, 1926 for the episcopal ordination of Enrico Valtorta, Pozzoni’s successor.

For Costantini it was not easy to put his goal into practice. Many missionaries did not share this view, arguing that the local clergy were not prepared to assume a leadership role and that the foreign protectorate was necessary to protect the Chinese missionaries and Catholics. Costantini faced resistance from European diplomats in China (including those of Catholic background) and, at times, from the missionaries themselves. To perform the Maximum illud, Costantini had to deal with a consolidated missionary and political mentality.

However, Costantini was a balanced and determined man. He did not lose sight of his mission objectives. He also found supporters for his innovative projects, among them the Belgian father Vincent Lebbe. And the PIME missionaries also supported the Delegate. In fact, the only two regional seminaries that, following Costantini’s instructions, were built in the Chinese architectural style, were precisely in two missions run by PIME: Kaifeng and Hong Kong.

With the Council of Shanghai in 1924 and the episcopal ordination of the first six Chinese bishops in 1926, Costantini finally succeeded in setting the Chinese mission on the path of renewal, entrusting it to the Chinese clergy and promoting inculturation. He is a pivotal figure in contemporary Catholicism and still today, along with Matteo Ricci, inspires respect and gratitude among Chinese Catholics.

* PIME missionary and sinologist

[1] Celso Costantini, With i missionaries in China. Memorie di fatti e di idee. Rome, 1946, vol. 1, p. 58-59. 200-201.

[2] Celso Costantini, With i missionaries in China. Memorie di fatti e di idee. Rome, 1946, vol. 1 p. Four.

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Written by Editor TLN

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