It’s been 100 years since the Catholic Church’s first Council in China

Chinese bishops On March 30, 1926, Cardinal van Rossum, prefect of Propaganda Fide, announced Pope Pius XI’s decision to consecrate the first six Chinese bishops, a ceremony that was held in St. Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 28 of that year. | Credit: Public Domain

One hundred years ago, the First Council of the Catholic Church convened in China, gathering together more than 100 bishops, vicar generals, and religious. The majority of the participants were foreign-born, but for the first time, there were also native Chinese who would have a say on the trajectory of the Church in their homeland.

Led by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Celso Costantini, papal legate to China, the primary objective of the council, which opened on May 15, 1924, was to initiate the process of ecclesial inculturation, which was constructed upon the indigenization of the Chinese Church. Secondly, the council set out to decouple the missions from the colonial project.

These two objectives were important in directing the Church’s ecclesiology and diplomatic mission, an objective that was reflected in Costantini’s elevation of Odorico Cheng Hede as the head of the recently created Apostolic Prefecture of Puqi and Melchior Sun Dezhen to the Apostolic Prefecture of Lixian.

“Among you are two Chinese prelates, recently raised to the dignity of prefects apostolic, these venerable brethren, are the fruit of your past labors, the grain of mustard that will grow into a large tree and bring forth abundant fruit in the future,” said Costantini during the solemn high Mass at the opening the council. 

It is against the backdrop of this momentous event that on Tuesday, May 21, the Pontifical Urban University along with Agenzia Fides and the Pastoral Commission for China is holding a conference to discuss the implications of the council on the historical legacy of the Church as well as contemporary Sino-Vatican relations. 

Titled “100 Years Since the ‘Concilium Sinense’: Between History and the Present,” the conference will feature a video message by Pope Francis, presentations by the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization. 

The conference will also feature voices from the People’s Republic of China, including Bishop Shen Bin of Shanghai, who made waves when he was unilaterally appointed as bishop of Shanghai in April 2023 without a papal mandate, thereby breaking the terms of the contested 2018 Sino-Vatican Accord. Pope Francis confirmed the appointment in July 2023. 

Maximum Illud, a new paradigm in Catholic missiology

On Nov. 30, 1919, Pope Benedict XV issued his apostolic letter Maximum Illud, a document that has been heralded as a turning point in the Church’s missiology.

At the heart of the letter was the call for the training of local clergy, which Benedict referred to as the “greatest hope of the new churches.” 

“For the local priest, one with his people by birth, by nature, by his sympathies and his aspirations is remarkably effective in appealing to their mentality and thus attracting them to the faith. Far better than anyone else, he knows the kind of argument they will listen to, and as a result, he often has easy access to places where a foreign priest would not be tolerated.”

The letter was not only responding to the postwar political climate but also to the historical legacy of the Catholic missions in China, which had been instrumentalized by the colonial powers (first the Portuguese and later the French) in shoring up their political power on the mainland.

The defeat of the Qing Dynasty by the British in the First Opium War ushered in what is called the  “Century of Humiliation,” a period that denotes a culture nadir and left China politically impotent on the domestic level. 

The 1842 Treaty of Nanjing was the first of the “unequal treaties” granting the British the status of “most favored nation” as well as extraterritorial economic and diplomatic privileges, setting the template by which other treaties were modeled and establishing the playbook for Western international relations with China. 

This was soon replicated by the French in October 1844 with the signing of the Treaty of Whampoa, which allowed for the uninterrupted practice of Catholicism in Chinese port cities (such as Shanghai) as well as granting extraterritorial privileges for foreign nationals, thereby exempting them from local laws and customs. 

H.M. Cole in the “Origins of the French Protectorate over Catholic Missions in China” observed, however, that it wasn’t until the signing of the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858 following the end of the Second Opium War that France became the de jure protector of Catholic missions in China.

Despite an expanding Catholic community, the Holy See did not have any direct diplomatic contact with China as any attempt to do so was thwarted by the French. 

More in Vatican

Many missionaries, moreover, still felt an obligation to their country of origin, thus feeding into the idea that they were on a project of nation-building rather than of evangelization. But there were some foreign born-priests in China who were staunch advocates of fundamentally altering the Church’s approach. 

Father Frédéric Vincent Lebbe, a French priest who arrived in China after the Boxer Rebellion, was an early advocate for the indigenization of the Chinese Church, a call that was shared by Father Anthony Cotta, a fellow Vincentian. 

In a letter Cotta forwarded to Rome — originally written by Lebbe to Paul-Marie Reynaud, bishop of Ningbo — Lebbe admonished the missionaries for creating “spiritual colonies” instead of living Churches and for “the national [indigenous Chinese priests] priesthood, being always kept down to the assistant level, is as though foreign in its own country.” 

Pope Benedict XV died on Jan. 22, 1922, and his successor, Pius XI, shared his determination to reform missionary work and establish an indigenous hierarchy. One of his most consequential decisions for the Church in China was the appointment of Costantini as his personal apostolic delegate in China. 

In Costantini’s memoir “With the Missionaries in China (1922–1933),” he described the Holy See’s efforts as having a “simple religious, missionary character,” adding: “It must, therefore, have no political aspect or constraints.'' 

He also emphasized that the “Holy See does not do politics … it has no imperialist aim in China,” and that “the missions are at the service of the Church,” an ambition that would materialize following the council.

Toward the council 

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The Primum Concilium Sinese (the first Plenary Council of China), or the Shanghai Synod of Bishops, was held from May 15 to June 12, 1924, bringing together 105 participants led by Costantini. 

Father Carlo Pioppi, professor of modern and contemporary Church history at the faculty of theology of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, noted in a 2012 paper that the groundwork for the council was already laid by 1923, when in May Costantini “had established a preparatory commission for the council, composed of 22 members, of which seven were Chinese.”

Pius XI in his 1924 apostolic letter authorized Costantini to convoke and preside over the upcoming council. A few months later Costantini appointed Odorico Cheng Hede as the head of the recently created Apostolic Prefecture of Puqi. He elevated another Chinese priest, Melchior Sun Dezhen, to the Apostolic Prefecture of Lixian. 

By preceding the council with the elevation of two Chinese clerics to head ecclesial territories, Costantini was signaling that the time had come to start erecting a local hierarchy. 

Throughout the monthlong synod, discussions were held on the process of inculturating the Church, in line with the guidelines set forth in Maximum Illud, and in establishing the eventual framework for a Chinese hierarchy, which came two years later when six Chinese bishops were consecrated by Pope Pius XI on Oct. 28, 1926.   

“Outside the council hall, you could hear almost all the languages ​​of the earth being spoken: once you crossed the threshold of the council hall, only the language of Rome was spoken,” Costantini recounted in his memoirs. 

“Once the council was over,” he continued, “we sent the Holy Father a telegram in which it was said: ‘With one heart, with one language, although many different languages ​​are spoken, we profess the faith of Rome and fidelity to the Chair of Peter.’” 

Pioppi observed in his paper that immediately following the closing of the synod, Costantini sent the text of the decrees to Rome to be subject to the recognition process, which lasted nearly four years, though it wasn’t until June 12, 1929, that the decrees were officially enacted. 

Some of the major changes to come out of the council included the new division of ecclesiastical territories into 17 new units corresponding with the administrative division of the Chinese state and the opening of parochial positions to Chinese clergy. 

In the second book of the conciliar decrees, the title De Admittendo Clero Indigena Ad Omnia Officia explicitly stated: “No office is barred to the native clergy, provided they are fit.” It continued to state that the council’s “desire” to see the day when “Chinese priests will also be elected as bishops.”

This council amounted to a “religious decolonization and greater inculturation” in China, Parolin wrote in Vatican News in 2021. Costantini returned to Rome in 1933, going on to serve as the secretary of Propaganda Fide, but he made an indelible mark, changing the perception and the structure of the Church in China.

On March 30, 1926, Cardinal Willem van Rossum, prefect of Propaganda Fide, announced Pius XI’s decision to consecrate the first Chinese six bishops, a ceremony that was held in St. Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 28 of that year. 

Twenty years later, on April 11, 1946, Pope Pius XII issued the apostolic constitution Quotidie Nos, officially establishing a Chinese hierarchy, a decision that carried a significant canonical and sociopolitical weight. 

Before 1946, the ecclesiastical administrative units in China were apostolic prefectures or pre-diocesan administrative units in mission territories. Having native-born Chinese bishops and an official diocesan structure elevated the position of the Chinese Church, signaling to the world that it was an equal, not a mission territory governed by foreigners. 

These events, while distant, fundamentally altered the Church’s approach to mission work as well as an understanding of its place in China, a point ever more important within the context of contemporary Sino-Vatican relations. 

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