According to Cardinal Costantini’s postulators, if the Church in China was able to go underground after the Communist revolution and remain strong until now, is mostly due to the work of the missionary bishop.
The opening of the diocesan phase for his beatification has consequences today: it is reviving the discussion around the difficult current situation between China and the Holy See.
The cardinal was born in 1876 and ordained a priest in 1899. He led an ordinary priestly ministry in his native region of Veneto for 14 years. Then in 1920 he was sent as apostolic delegate to Fiume, a former Italian city that came under Yugoslavia administration after the First World War.
Ordained a bishop in 1921, he was appointed the first apostolic delegate to China the next year.
His time in China witnessed continued changes.
In June 15, 1926, Pope Pius XI sent to the Church of China the letter “Ab Ipsia,” in which he emphasized that missionaries did not serve the interest of foreign nations. He announced that soon native-born bishops would be ordained. The new bishop, the Pope said, had the task to cooperate with apostolic vicars in China for the prosperity of their country.
Pius XI ordained the first six Chinese bishops Oct. 28, 1926, at St. Peter’s Basilica.
The ordination of Chinese-born bishops drew varied reactions among missionaries in China. Some of them, like Bishop Costantini, welcomed the move, while others showed some hostility to the Pope’s decision. Parts of the Diocese of China were directly entrusted to missionary orders, some of which felt they were losing “territory.”
As for the Church’s missionary vision, in February 1926, Pius XI issued the encyclical “Rerum Ecclesiae,” which confirmed the guidelines established by “Maximum Illud.”
Bishop Costantini returned to Italy in 1933, but he kept on working for the cause of the Church in China.
Appointed secretary of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, he backed the translation of the missal into Chinese in order to help faithful to understand the Mass, which at the time was said only in Latin.
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After a few years, he saw the fruits of his work.
In 1941 and 1942 came two decrees of the Holy Office, now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. These approved the use of the local language to celebrate the sacraments in New Guinea, China, Japan, Indochina, India and Africa. Then in 1949 the Holy Office approved the use of Chinese language in the celebration of the Mass.
The Holy See established the ordinary ecclesiastical hierarchy in China in 1946. The Chinese territory was divided in 20 archdioceses, 85 dioceses and 34 apostolic prefectures.
In 1953, Celso Costantini was made a cardinal by Pius XII. He passed away in 1958.