China: Signs of hope as virus subsides


Wuhan Seminary

Wuhan Seminary

While Covid-19 is now raging in other parts of the world, the virus has subsided in China, and in Wuhan, where it started, restrictions are very slowly being lifted. A Catholic based in the city, who has been living under lockdown since February, sends this latest reflection.

About ten years ago while I was with a group of seminarians at Wuhan seminary, an interesting discussion developed about an item of recent Church history. One seminarian referred to the time Pope John Paul II was planning his visit to Korea in 1989. He said that Catholics in China had become aware of the possibility of the papal flight passing through Chinese airspace. However, as he explained, that direct route was not taken so there was no opportunity for Pope John Paul II to see this vast land, no opportunity for him to send the traditional greetings to the political leader of the time and no opportunity for the Catholics of China to experience an event that would have brought them closer to the Bishop of Rome.

In the ongoing discussion the seminarians were clear that if such a flight path had been taken in 1989 it would have been a special occasion for the Church in China, a time for them to celebrate their relationship with the pope, a leadership role held in high regard by Catholics here. The roundabout route for the papal flight to Korea did not take away from a lively discussion among the seminarians about what such an event would mean for them. In fact the discussion showed that the anticipation of a possible event can continue to stir considerable joy even though the event had not happened 20 years earlier. Through the way they spoke, it was easy to see that there are multiple perspectives associated with a possible event which can become the seeds of other conversations, all of which can bring joy and laughter.

The Vatican and China do not have diplomatic ties and it is unlikely that these will be established in the near future. However, in more recent years there has been an ongoing dialogue. A common factor in this engagement is that both sides are familiar with the long sweep of history that has formed their respective understandings of the world, outlooks in which a hundred years can be seen as a relatively short span of time. While developments do move slowly within such time scales, it is important to pay attention to occasional events that act as symbols of change along the winding road of historical unfolding.

In 2014 Pope Francis's international travels included a visit to Korea for World Youth Day. On this occasion there was considerable surprise when details of the flight path to Korea were announced. China had given permission for Pope Francis's flight to pass through its airspace, a decision that was seen as significant by Catholics in China.

On August 14th of that year, for the first time in history, a pope was flying over the world's most populated country. As is normal protocol for international papal flights, Pope Francis sent a message of goodwill to the Chinese president Xi Jinping. A few weeks later an acknowledgement was received by the Vatican. While there needs to be caution in interpreting the significance of such events, in this case it is possible to see that time does bring its own changes.

Another event that can be seen in a similar way is the recent exhibition of art in Beijing from the Vatican Museums. Last year at the Palace Museum of the Forbidden City, the exhibition Beauty Unites us - Chinese Art from the Vatican Museums ran from May 28th to July 17th. The 76 works from the Vatican represented secular, Buddhist and Catholic art. The event was described by the Vatican Museums director Barbara Jatta as being a "diplomacy of art", something that Pope Francis sees as an important role for the museums. While the scale of the exhibition was modest, it is important to keep in mind that such developments would have been unthinkable a mere 40 years ago, therefore indicating changes at a deeper level that are not expressed by public statements.

Last November as Pope Francis flew from Thailand to Japan his flight passed through Chinese airspace again. In a similar way he sent good wishes to President Xi Jinping assuring him of his prayers for the nation and its people, invoking blessings of peace and joy. Again there is a symbolic meaning to an event of this kind when it contrasts with a history in which such events could not happen.

Chinese people often emphasise that their culture has a written history of over 5,000 years, acknowledging that, in spite of challenges along the way, a rich stream of accumulated wisdom flows within the lives of the people. Due to the large population, the long established culture is seen as having the ability to absorb positive contributions from other parts of the world by shaping them into a form that is understandable to its own people. Viewed from this perspective, patient diplomatic effort between the Vatican and China should be seen as unfolding within the long stretches of historical time, an understanding in which meaningful developments can continue to radiate hope long after the participating people have departed from the focal point of activity.

In February as China grappled with the escalating number of COVID-19 cases, medical personnel from other parts of China arrived to Hubei province in large numbers. The president of China received messages of support from the leaders of several nations. Some countries sent medical supplies to assist in the containment efforts. In mid-February the Vatican sent 600,000 masks to China, an undertaking of the Office of Papal Charities and the Missionary Centre of the Chinese Church in Italy. This initiative was appreciated by people in China during its time of great need.

During the past two weeks new COVID-19 cases have declined to a tiny number in China. At the same time there is a high level of awareness in China that many other countries are now faced with huge challenges as they respond to the coronavirus. Chinese factories are now central to providing protective clothing and equipment that forms an essential part of virus containment efforts internationally, an involvement that the country takes very seriously.

Last week some public transport resumed service in Wuhan even though people still remain cautious about going outdoors. Towards the end of this week Wuhan is likely to be connected to the rest of the country with trains and roads. For some people a reopening of the churches in the city for Easter seemed like a possibility. However, that now seems highly unlikely even though churches in some parts of the country have reopened.

Once again there is a need for patience. As faithful pilgrims, Catholics in this part of China are praying their way through each day of Holy Week. Going to the church is not an option in Wuhan. However, with the help of radio and the internet many are already connecting with liturgical celebrations in other parts of China. Since the weekend social media messages are providing a schedule in Chinese of the Holy Week ceremonies that will take place in the Vatican. This week some Catholics in Wuhan will unite their prayers with those of Pope Francis as they accompany him in celebrating the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As the lessons from history continually teach us, a meaningful and suitable way, direct or indirect, eventually emerges to surprise us all.


Tags: China, Wuhan, Coronavirus, Letter

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