Saturday, December 3, 2022

Gazing Upon China With Saint Francis Xavier

On this December 3rd, I can’t improve much on the summary I made last year of the life of the incredible Saint Francis Xavier, missionary to East Asia. He was no seeker of earthly power or riches; he was a man on fire with the love of God, with a passion to witness to Jesus through all the world. He preached in India, was the first Catholic missionary in Japan, and longed to reach China—where he finally died of an illness (having reached the limits of human endurance) on an island seven miles from the coast of the southern province of Guangdong. The ardor of his missionary heart brought a great many people to Christ, shined the light of the Gospel explicitly in nations where it had never shone before, and planted seeds—many of which have yet to grow, blossom, and bear fruit. But others have grown and bloomed, and many more grow secretly.

The seeds planted by Francis Xavier and those who followed after him (indeed, also those who preceded him) have already borne worthy fruit. His Jesuit brethren reached China, and they learned to propose the Gospel in all its radical newness, but also as the fulfillment of China’s profound “religious” wisdom traditions, its reverent humanism, and its ancient yet childlike wonder in front of the order, harmony, and beauty of the world. Along with other missionaries, the Jesuits came with respect for China’s great culture, and they fostered patiently the encounter of Chinese people with Jesus.

Their witness made possible the conversions of a number of the elite class in the late-Ming Dynasty period (early-to-mid 17th century) including Li Zhizao, Yang Tingyun, and Xu Guangqi—who are known as the “three pillars” of the Catholic Church in China. In the subsequent centuries, Christianity’s growth in China was small but significant. It faced persecution at various times, while also spreading more widely (sometimes in ambiguous forms) after the British forcibly “opened” China to Western “trade” in the 19th century. There was much that was shameful in those days, when British companies traded vast quantities of Indian opium for Chinese tea, initiating and sustaining a widespread opium addiction that was previously unknown to China. 

Though never colonized, China suffered greatly under the weight of Western political and economic powers. Meanwhile, Protestant and Catholic missionaries came in large numbers, but frequently it proved difficult to distinguish the Gospel from a huge influx of other secular European ideas. Many of these ideas from the West were good, but they often reached the declining Qing Dynasty-era Chinese society in a “mixed bag” of European views and practices already distorted by Europe’s dominant mentality, which was characterized by a post-Christian, materialistic, technologically manipulative hubris.

The 20th century was a period of unprecedented upheaval and astonishing change for the whole world, but it all came with peculiar intensiveness to China, the world’s most populated country. The Church grew, and there were many genuine advances rooted in an increasingly worldwide recognition of the dignity of human persons. But along with these came wars and destructive ideologies, especially what might be called the “ultimate Christian heresy,” Marxism-Leninism, which endeavored to spend every resource of human idealism, intelligence, and hope on the violent and futile effort to break the world and then refashion it as an egalitarian utopia. Under Mao Zedong, China became a strange and tormented laboratory for all manner of experimentation with human and natural ecology in disastrous attempts to create the New Communist Human Being.

After Mao’s death in 1976, China’s Communist Party apparently “pivoted.” It exchanged its exhausted and discredited utopian materialism for a more pragmatic consumerist materialism, but it still maintained its power and its willingness to crush without mercy any deviation from its all-invasive dictatorial grasp. China is ruled today by a vast militarized and bureaucratized neo-Fascist PartyState that is accountable to no one and keeps many secrets. They permit their power to be constrained, it seems, only to the degree necessary to maintain a minimum of credibility on the “world stage,” to do business and expand their influence in globalized markets (which is unavoidable in today’s world), to make a show (a rather poor show) of humanitarian and ecological concerns, and to make treaties and diplomatic and trade agreements with other countries.

But surely there is more to the story of today’s China. Impulses toward the good run abundantly through the veins of this enormous nation. There is much constructive work, dedication in good faith to caring for people, genuine love and self-sacrifice, preservation or rediscovery of the best of a four-thousand-year-old tradition, and genuine new questions in the face of present circumstances. I know, too, that there has been immense suffering, patience, quiet dignity, moments of surprising heroism, and the pervasive cry of a billion-and-a-half hearts that are not satisfied by the Party Line or increasing profits or the combination of both that Chinese Communofacism currently offers as its ideal for happiness.

I know that it is the Lord of Heaven who truly permits and sustains and governs all things, the Lord who has drawn close to every human heart in Jesus Christ.

For this reason (and, ultimately, what other reason is there?) I continue to have hope for China, and for Chinese people, in the present and in times to come. It has been more than five years since I took up in earnest the study of China and other East Asian cultures—a project I began when I realized how little I knew about this immense part of the world. After five years of continuous application to study and some written work of my own, I find myself with more questions than when I began. Perhaps they are at least more intelligent questions.

Saint Francis Xavier, however, did not arrive at the threshold of China in the 16th century because he merely had “questions.” He was driven by the love of Christ, and by love for these millions of people with whom he wanted to share the surpassing joy of knowing Christ. He was certain that Christ was the reason why each one of them had been made. Though I have a weak faith and a fickle heart, I have the same certainty that Francis Xavier had. I hope that my own labors can participate somehow in the mission he sought to carry out.

I will probably never “cross the border” into China, but as I study its history and learn about its people, I glimpse their beautiful and special qualities, their historic and current problems, their particular (and terrible) sufferings, and—once again, with amazement—the fundamental common humanity we share and the common destiny toward which we journey together. I hope to carry them in my heart, offering them to the infinite mercy of Jesus who loves us all. I will continue to study hard and write more, to learn what I can and ask questions, to encourage further dialogue and understanding between West and East, and to contribute to engaging problems and even facing dangers down the road—all in the hope of drawing closer together in Christ and sharing together the joy of eternal life.